From Head Scarf to Army Cap, Making a New Life

By ANDREA ELLIOTT LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Tex. – Stomping her boots and swinging her bony arms, Fadwa Hamdan led a column of troops through this bleak Texas base. Only six months earlier, she wore the head scarf of a pious Muslim woman and dropped her eyes in the presence of men. Now she was marching them to dinner. I’m gonna be a shooting man, a shooting man! she cried, her Jordanian accent lost in the chanting voices. The best I can for Uncle Sam, for Uncle Sam! The United States military has long prided itself on molding raw recruits into hardened soldiers. Perhaps none have undergone a transformation quite like that of Ms. Hamdan. Forbidden by her husband to work, she raised five children behind the drawn curtains of their home in Saudi Arabia. She was not allowed to drive. On the rare occasions when she set foot outside, she wore a full-face veil. Then her world unraveled. Separated from her husband, who had taken a second wife, and torn from her children, she moved to Queens to start over. Struggling to survive on her own, she answered a recruiting advertisement for the Army and enlisted in May. Ms. Hamdan’s passage through the military is a remarkable act of reinvention. It required courage and sacrifice. She had to remove her hijab, a sacred symbol of the faith she holds deeply. She had to embrace, at the age of 39, an arduous and unfamiliar life. In return, she sought what the military has always promised new soldiers: a stable home, an adoptive family, a remade identity. She left one male-dominated culture for another, she said, in the hope of finding new strength along the way. Always, I dream I have power on the inside, and one day it’s going to come out, said Ms. Hamdan, a small woman with delicate hands and sad, almond eyes. She belongs to the rare class of Muslim women who have signed up to become soldiers trained in Arabic translation. Such female linguists play a crucial role for the American armed forces in Iraq, where civilian women often feel uncomfortable interacting with male troops. Finding Arabic-speaking women willing to serve in the military has proved daunting. Of the 317 soldiers who have completed training in the Army linguist program since 2003, just 23 are women, 13 of them Muslim. Ms. Hamdan wrestled with the decision for two years. Only in the Army, she decided, would she be able to save money to hire a lawyer and finally divorce her husband. […]