Growing up in a secular Muslim family in Washington, D.C., Rajai Hakki struggled to figure himself out. Then the September 11th attacks gave him clarity.
He considered himself fully American, but after the terror attacks Hakki felt that his name and Syrian ancestry raised doubts about his allegiances.
And so Hakki quit college and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. "I wanted to prove something — that Arab Americans and Americans from Muslim backgrounds are not terrorists or killers or some sort of psychos," Hakki said.
Rajai Hakki enlisted in the Marines after 9/11 and served as an interpreter in Iraq in 2004. Courtesy of Rajai Hakki
In early 2002, he ended up at Parris Island, the training camp legendary for toughness. The drill instructors were brutal in their crushing of individuality, targeting anything that made anyone different, he said. The instructors made jokes about Allah, which Hakki laughed off. "They pick on everyone equally," he said.
Hakki, 35, who became a translator for intelligence units during the war in Iraq and left the U.S. military in 2010, said he has been thinking more about that time of his military career, comparing it to the environment described in newly surfaced allegations of hazing at Parris Island.
That scandal has centered on the treatment of two Muslim recruits, one who committed suicide after being slapped and yelled at, and another who was burned in a clothes dryer after allegedly being called a terrorist.
The cases, part of larger review of harsh training methods at the South Carolina facility, have forced Hakki and other young Muslim veterans of the Marines — many of whom enlisted out of loyalty to America — to reexamine their own experiences. It raises the question: Is the corps still a place that welcomes people like them?