One Muslim U.S. Veteran Talks About Service

Mohammad Zafar is a teacher, trainer, husband and father. He’s also a Muslim and a former Marine who served in Japan and California.

Zafar moved to the U.S. from Pakistan with his parents in 1988 at the age of 13 and enlisted in the military right out of high school. This Veterans Day, I asked Zafar a few questions about his time in the service and his life afterward.

Rewire:  What was your role in the military? When and where did you serve?

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Mohammad Zafar in the U.S. Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Zafar.

Mohammad Zafar: I went in as enlisted. My assignment was 3381 which is a cook in the U.S. Marines. Served right out of high school from 1994 to 1998. I was fully out of the Marines in the summer of 2001. I went to boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in California and Camp Pendleton for Military Combat Training. I served in Okinawa, Japan, Fuji, Japan, and Twentynine Palms Marine base in California. I also did training at a few different places with Light Armored Reconnaissance.  

R: What was it like to be a Muslim member of the military?

MZ: Overall it was very good. Marines judged each other by our conduct and (provided for our) religious needs, meaning that the Marine Corps gave us a place to pray and the size of it was determined by how many of us were there. For example, there were a lot of Catholics so there was a church for them. There were not as many Muslims so we had a large room. I also was given time to pray five times a day and my fellow Marines made sure I had halal food and was taken care of.

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Mohammad Zafar and his mom (right) and aunt right after boot camp. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Zafar.

I always felt that our beliefs were respected from an institutional perspective and, with all honesty, I have never felt the religious freedom and acknowledgment as a civilian as I did in the Marines while I was serving. I never had to really ask to have my needs met. It was a proactive thing. It was also not over the top so that you felt out of place. It was just part of the system and culture back then in the Marines. We looked out for each other and our faith and ethnic identities were respected. This did not mean bigotry was not felt by me, it is just that the goodness and the overall structure seem to crush that idea for the most part.

R: What does your life look like now? What do you do for a living?

MZ: Now I am a fitness and community psychologist. I have a wife and three kids. My oldest daughter Amaiya Zafar is a boxer. She started when she was 13 years old and now she is 16. Her goal is to be in the 2020 Olympics. She wears hijab and fights every day in the ring and outside the ring. I wish for her it was different and her rights were respected but that seems to be a struggle we are dealing with, something I did not really feel in the Marines.

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Mohammad Zafar and his wife, Sarah. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Zafar.

I travel on contracts and train folks around the world and currently I am heading out to Morocco and France. I help others through positivity and fitness through a psychological lens.

I strongly believe if you respect other folks and help them practice their faith, we as a nation will be healthier. We all share common goals such as respecting and taking care of our elders, raising children and making our nation a better place for everyone.

There is enough space in our hearts for everyone. This was the reason why I became a Marine and this is the reason why I continue to help others.

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Mohammad Zafar’s family. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Zafar.

R: What did your time in the service teach you? What did you learn serving in the military that you still use today?

MZ: Some simple things I learned is respecting myself and respecting others. Most importantly, there is room to do both and accomplish both. I teach my kids to get to where you need to be 15 minutes before you are asked to be there. I love my wife and spend time with my family because life is short. Be honest and keep moving forward in life. Most importantly, we are all different but we are all the same. This stems from both my faith as a Muslim and as a Marine because both Islam and Marines have people from all walks of life with many different ideas and culture; what unites us is the fact we are all brothers and sisters to each other and we should and must never forget that. This is what I am trying to teach my fellow Americans. The task is hard but it is something we need if we are going to survive as a country.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.