By Ruth Broyde Sharone
U.S. MILITARY MUSLIM CHAPLAIN RETIRES
What would propel an 18 year-old, 4’10” Muslim girl, born in Trinidad, the daughter of immigrants, to join the U.S. Army and serve for 35 years?
Ret. Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein says it all started with a pair of army socks.
In 1978 Shareda was living a traditional, sheltered life with her four siblings and parents in Boston. Her mother owned a hair-salon and her father scaled poles as a cable-splicer for a local telephone company. Originally from India, they were third generation Muslims living in Trinidad before they immigrated to America.
The eldest of the siblings, Shareda, was a dutiful daughter and diligent student. She attended a public school for gifted students where she was the only Muslim; the majority of her classmates were white, with a few African-Americans and some of Chinese origin. When school was over each day, Shareda played sports and then went straight home. “I didn’t hang out with my friends except when we had parties. My life and my movements were very circumscribed.”
But Shareda had dreams, fed by a brief stint in Cologne and Berlin as a high school exchange student in the summer between her junior and senior years. “I grew up on fairy tales, and Germany for me was once the land of castles and palaces,” she reminisced.
She returned to the States after that summer abroad, a bit more worldly but still uncertain about her future. Her parents were not savvy enough to guide her for college applications, nor did they have the financial resources to foot the bill if she had been accepted. That’s when a pair of army socks became a catalyst for Shareda Hosein’s unconventional life and career.
In a magazine she spotted an offer for a free pair of army socks if she would fill out an army application. Shareda applied for the free socks and, in short order, received a phone call from the Army recruiting office asking her to come in for an interview.
Listening to their pitch and envisioning herself in the military, Shareda experienced a strong wave of feminism and decided to sign up. Growing up in Boston she had been troubled by the gender inequality she experienced, especially at home. Her brothers got bicycles, but the girls didn’t. Her brothers were also allowed to join the Boy Scouts, but she and her sisters couldn’t become Girl Scouts. In the U.S. army, she could become an independent woman. That appealed to her deeply.
Oddly enough, Shareda never discussed her decision to join the army with her parents. It was a secret that she only shared with two of her aunts and some school friends. Then one day she abruptly announced to her father she was joining the army and leaving for Germany.
“Could you kill someone?” was the only thing he asked. Shareda’s response was total silence.
In retrospect she realized that was probably her father’s way of emphasizing her naiveté. “Growing up we never really dialogued. I never talked to my parents about my ideas, my aspirations, or my politics. Don’t get me wrong. They were great, loving parents – although admittedly overprotective.”
Back in Boston for a visit after a year of service, her parents looked like they had aged ten years. Her decision had shocked them profoundly, she discovered, and her younger sisters also suffered, they later told her, because their parents restricted their activities even more after Shareda decided to join the army.
While in the Army, Shareda met and married her first husband, a white Christian from North Carolina, who later converted to Islam when they moved back to Boston. Their daughter, Farhana, was conceived while they were stationed in Panama.
Her first army stint concluded, Shareda entered the University of Massachusetts in Boston where she became head secretary in the Department of Biology, a job that afforded her free tuition and a stipend from the Army.
She separated from her husband in 1983 – not because of religion but incompatibility, she disclosed. The following year she joined the reserves because, frankly, she missed the army lifestyle. In 1987 she graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in business administration.
All the while Shareda was also becoming more involved with her local mosque, wanting to expose her young daughter to Islam. In 1991 she even ran for a position on the board and won, scoring the second highest number of votes, a real coup since she was the only woman running against ten men. “I spoke passionately to the members about growing up in a community where I lacked mentors and guides. I wanted to see our youth grow up with their own mentors and I wanted to see women have more say in the mosque." She ended her speech by echoing the military slogan she heard frequently and had inculcated into her own life: “Lead by example.”
She also found herself becoming more devout in her practice, and in 1995 she started to wear the hijab (Musim women's head-covering). Shareda also decided to register at Hartford Seminary for the Muslim Chaplaincy program.
Becoming a Muslim Army Chaplain
The second time around, it was an article in the Boston Globe – not army socks – that sparked her interest in returning to active military duty. A Marine gunny sergeant had said he would like to see a female Muslim become a chaplain in the military. Ripe for the plucking and a perfect candidate, Shareda snagged the job. She also realized at the time she could become an advocate for Muslim women soldiers to wear a hijab as she did.
The infamous day of September 11, 2001, while taking a course at Hartford Seminary, was the first time Shareda experienced fear living in America. “We didn’t know who toppled the Twin Towers, but around 4 pm a local Imam came and advised us, ‘If you have to go out to the market, etcetera, please call the mosque and ask for men to run your errands.’ They were worried that the women wearing a hijab might be endangered, especially after a Sikh wearing a turban had just been killed while buying gas in Oregon,” she recalled. “I was 40 years old and I didn’t recognize the America emerging after 9/11, because I felt a double jeopardy: one being Muslim and one being a military officer, and the only thing that sustained me during that rough period was my belief in God.”
“I was worried that the political quarantine camps created for the Japanese in America during World War II might happen to us Muslims too. Later I realized the government wouldn’t have to confine us in special areas because we were already being monitored with all of the electronic surveillances available: Internet, phone tapping, and so on. I felt I had no secure future.”
A month after 9/11 her security officer told her: “I’m not sure if you thought about this, but some people in the military may not trust you and even some Muslims may not trust you.” It was an eye-opener for Shareda, who by then held the rank of major and had experienced a great sense of security because her colleagues in the reserve units in Boston all trusted her.
Shortly thereafter, however, she began to sense a palpable erosion of confidence within the military as well as in general society. On one hand, they had created a special job for her, as a cultural engagement officer to educate other servicemen about Islam. On the other, she felt she wasn’t being engaged in certain conversations because she was Muslim. Nevertheless, in Tampa, Florida, her last assignment, her chaplaincy skills and knowledge about Islam became the core of her new role in the army. “I was able to set up workshops, lectures, and support staff as needed, and that gave me a deep sense of inclusivity.”
When she left, her position dissolved, and she was not replaced.
Shareda Hosein retired in 2015 in an official ceremony attended by her proud family and friends. Her time as a commissioned officer had expired. “Being in the military offered me great independence and a sense of truly becoming an American because I took the mission of the military seriously.
“I felt confident, invincible, and trustworthy, because I was walking in the footsteps of so many great leaders. And ironically enough, I would credit the army for bringing me back to my religion. They always allowed me the time and place to worship – whether I was in Germany or Panama or Kuwait or elsewhere I was in awe that the military gave people time and ability to practice their religion.
“While I served I felt safe and comfortable and could trust the military with my life. The camaraderie and the fellowship that I’ve experienced these 35 years have been rich and rewarding. We were able to build true intimacy with one another, all of us a band of brothers. However, I realize how angry I am right now about what is happening to loyal Muslims in our country.”
Especially galling to Shareda is Donald Trump’s promise to institute legal measures to close American borders to all Muslims from abroad and curtail the rights of Muslims already here. “This is precisely the time in our military history that we need more Muslim men and women in our ranks," Shareda emphasized. “And I would say to young Muslims: If that’s your calling, do join and know that there will be lots of men and women to support you.”
All in all, Ret. Lt. Colonel Hosein has no regrets. Destiny called and she answered. She says she will be forever grateful for the lure of those free army socks. They were white and had U.S.Army inscribed in green at the top.
Shareda would love to be contacted here by any Muslims who are considering military service.