Diane Bell: Muslim Army chaplain recalls Pentagon terrorist attack aftermath

By Diane Bell

"Unimaginable" was how Army Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad described the carnage at the Pentagon after militant Islamic terrorists commandeered and crashed an American Airlines jet into the U.S. military complex on Sept. 11, 2001.

In 1994, he had become the first military chaplain of Muslim faith in the U.S. armed forces and was on duty at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center when the terrorist attack occurred.

Five-member teams of psychologists, social workers and chaplains were immediately dispatched to the Pentagon, assigned to work around the clock in eight-hour shifts.

For three weeks, Muhammad administered to first responders, search and rescue workers, law enforcement officers, Pentagon employees, medical personnel and anyone who sought pastoral counseling or stress debriefing as recovery operations took place and remains were removed from the crash site.

Within a day, a large U.S. flag was erected at what was left of the crumbled, scorched wall of the Pentagon where the plane had crashed, Muhammad recalls. The smell of jet fuel lingered for weeks. He describes the ensuing organized chaos as akin to a fire drill 100 times beyond the intensity people might have taken part in at a school or office building.

"I was the only one at this time who wore a symbol on my uniform that was a (Muslim) crescent moon," rather than a Christian or Jewish symbol, Muhammad says. Otherwise, his garb resembled other military uniforms.

Asked if his faith made him a target at that volatile time, he immediately responds: "Absolutely not. I was an Army officer and a chaplain — a chaplain who happened to be Muslim."

Today the chaplain, 68, who retired from the Army in 2012, is continuing to do his mental health and spiritual counseling at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in La Jolla.

At the 9/11 crash scene, he and his colleagues were in far less hospitable quarters. They set up services in the parking area by the crash site. A sign was posted identifying their makeshift quarters as a chaplain tent. Anyone was welcome to come in to pray, to seek solace or simply to sit and rest.

"We talked to anyone who wanted to talk to us," the Muslim chaplain recalls. "I did my Friday services there — one was inside the Pentagon; one was outside the Pentagon. Everybody was in shock. Everybody was dismayed," says the father of seven who had studied for his master's degree in counseling education at San Diego State University in 1977-79. He subsequently added a graduate degree in social work at the University of Michigan.

He was glad to be standing by when people needed someone there to comfort them. "I was fulfilling a role. Everyone pulled together."

It angered Muhammad that people of any faith could do a deed as terrible as this. He was upset that the al-Qaeda terrorists were identified with his religion. He knew their actions weren't representative of Islamic teachings, "but I also knew they would be associated with Islam," he says.

"For those of us in the Muslim community, there was a lot of fear and anxiety as to what the aftermath would be," he says. "Mosques were desecrated. Some businesses were destroyed or burned. Muslim organizations in America had their offices ransacked by law enforcement. ... There was a lot of chaos, confusion, anger."

President George W. Bush helped soothe tempers by visiting a Washington, D.C., mosque and stressing that the terrorists were not practicing Islamic teachings.

"The Muslim community in America was very grateful for that," Muhammad says.

He took part in a formal memorial service on Oct. 11, 2001, with Bush, members of the U.S. Cabinet, Joint Chiefs of Staff, legislators and thousands of onlookers.

"If I had my choice, I wouldn't have done it," Muhammad recalls, but the Army Chief of Chaplains had asked him to give a prayer.

He later told independent documentary maker David Washburn, who produced a video about his 9/11 experience, that while he did not want to take part, his participation "was in the best interest of everybody, including Muslims. It was really important for a Muslim to be there ... a Muslim in uniform."

With a sea of solemn faces looking on, Muhammad read a short scripture passage from the Quran. "I can't remember how I chose it," he told me. It apparently struck the right tone because Muhammad reports he got no backlash.

The chaplain went on to serve in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired from the Army in 2012 as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years in the service.

When he began as a chaplain in 1994, the reported number of Muslim military members was about 5,000, although he suspects the unofficial number was double that because many chose not to be open about their religion. Today there are 15 Muslim chaplains throughout all branches of the U.S. military, he says.

After his military service, Muhammad began working at the Veterans Administration in Baltimore, then transferred to the San Diego VA in 2017 and took up residence in Fallbrook.

As a mental health counselor and spiritual guide at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center here, he often deals with cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury — a term that describes the suffering of those who either see or do something contrary to their core values, something they couldn't prevent and can't forget.

Time has taken Muhammad from the disaster at the Pentagon to the pandemic and devastating outbreak of COVID-19. Once again, the Muslim chaplain finds himself ministering to Americans during a major crisis.

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