Islamic faith is chaplain’s foundation for helping Soldiers
Story and photo by Carmen Slaybaugh/The Leader
FORT JACKSON, S.C. (TRADOC News Service, June 17, 2005) – A chaplain who just happens to be Muslim is how Chaplain (Capt.) Khalid Shabazz describes himself.
Currently serving as the 3rd Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment’s chaplain, Shabazz is only one of three Muslim clerics in the U.S. Army.
Before joining the Army, Shabazz attended Jarvis Christian College, becoming an ordained Lutheran minister. It was during this time he began asking questions that none of his teachers seemed able to answer. Being told to simply believe was something Shabazz said his analytical mind was unable to accept.
After graduating college, he began his spiritual journey, searching for the answers to questions that plagued him. That journey ended when he found the Islamic faith more than 10 years ago, said Shabazz.
His path to the Army opened up when he learned of all the opportunities it offered him and his family. Shabazz said he had always been fascinated by the Army but wondered if he had the discipline to succeed.
“I thought it was probably a good thing to try,” he said.
Shabazz said he works to have Soldiers look at him as a chaplain first.
“When people come in here, they are coming in for counseling. My job is not to convert anybody. I want to help people with their primary problem,” said Shabazz.
He uses his faith as his foundation in helping others but not as a political platform. When he begins working with Soldiers, he does not introduce himself as a Muslim cleric to prevent putting up any potential roadblocks. Doing so, Shabazz said, would give the impression he is only there for the Muslim Soldiers instead of the entire battalion.
Ninety percent of his job is counseling. Through the course of the day, Shabazz said he will counsel, on average, 20 basic combat training Soldiers.
“Once you become a hit and the cadre trusts you, then not only do you have the 20 BCT Soldiers a day, the cadre are dropping in, too,” Shabazz said.
His superiors commend him on his efforts. Lt. Col. John Bessler, 3rd Bn., 13th Inf. Regt. commander, said both the BCT and cadre Soldiers not only see Shabazz because they have to but because they want to.
One of the hard things about being the only Islamic chaplain on an installation is not only does he have the primary responsibilities to the battalion, but he must be available for all Muslims on post.
Army chaplains, unlike other Army officers, must have the endorsement of their religious affiliation to remain on active duty. This endorsement can be revoked if the religious endorsing agent feels the chaplain is not completing their organization’s requirements.
In addition to his service on Fridays in the Main Post Chapel, Shabazz spends 2 1/2 half hours each Sunday working with the advanced individual training Soldiers in the native and heritage Middle Eastern speaking translator-aide program. He also conducts a service once a week at the Center for Peace in Monticello, S.C.
Noting the total dedication on Shabazz’s part, outgoing 3rd Bn., 13th Inf. Regt. Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa King said, “He works seven days a week, never really getting a day off. He ministers to all the Soldiers regardless of their faith.”
Shabazz said his time in the Army has been full. During his 17-year career, Shabazz has deployed nine times to places including Africa, Bosnia and Kosovo.
One of the more controversial deployments was when he replaced the then-detained Capt. James Yee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when Yee came under investigation.
“I went in not knowing what to think, but my personality is that they have to take me for me. It was just horrible the first month because everybody was looking at me with skepticism,” said Shabazz.
After that initial month and after working to become a member of the community, Shabazz said the “whole tide changed into my favor. It was great.”
The experience for him was gratifying and frightening at the same time.
“You have the dichotomy of being in the uniform, being an American, being a Soldier – loyal to the country,” said Shabazz. “And then you have people who say they are of your religious faith. They are looking at you with skepticism, and I’m looking at them with skepticism because of something they allegedly did. That balance or paradox was a tough one."
The bottom line was never blurred for him, though.
“My idea was clear. If you had anything to do with 9/11, you are on the other side,” he said.
For a large part, when it comes to dealing with people not of his faith, Shabazz said he does spend a portion of that initial time dispelling their misconceptions of him and his family’s faith.
“They watch CNN, and everything they see is what they think my faith is, juxtaposed to what I really practice,” Shabazz said.
The first statement Shabazz heard from his commander when he first came on active duty in Bamburg, Germany, was, “Chaplain, you are not going to work out here because we have some concerns with the way you guys treat women.”
Shabazz’s answer to him was, “I practice the religion, not the culture.
“And there is a difference,” Shabazz said.
His dedication to the Army and his devotion to his faith have led Shabazz to succeed.
“He’s a hot commodity. That is not because he is Islamic but because he’s a great chaplain,” said Bessler.
Shabazz’s next rotation will be to Fort Hood, Texas, where, as he puts it, he will be “getting some sand in his boots.”