On Veterans Day, contemplating a world without war

On this Veterans Day, I fondly think about my time serving as a physician-in-training at a New York Veterans Administration hospital. The year was 2000. The Gulf War was over. Our national debt was $5.7 trillion. Jobs were abundant. And "Gulf War Syndrome" was the biggest health concern for our veterans.

The VA's motto always resonated with me: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." And I tried my best to care for my patients with Gulf War Syndrome, despite the unexplainable complexity of their symptoms — ranging from depression and anxiety to irritable bowels and limb weakness. Since there was no test to confirm the presence of Gulf War Syndrome, it became a subject of controversy in medical conference rooms. Our patients would go from one specialist to another with unclear outcomes.

On Veterans Day 2010, the picture is dramatically different. A decade-long war is taking its toll. Our national debt has climbed to $13.7 trillion. The unemployment rate is a whopping 9.6 percent. And our veterans are confronting death in addition to depression.

A 2007 CBS news report found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide as non-vets (at a rate of 18.7 to 20.8 suicides per 100,000 veterans, compared to 8.9 suicides per 100,000 for other Americans).

Since war is the instrument that creates veterans, and all of the risks they face, I conclude: What better intervention for the welfare of our veterans than to alleviate war in the first place?

But is that ever possible? In an era of growing threats abroad and at home, a time when mistrust and the clash of cultures is routinely manifest in violence, can we ever achieve a world of peace?

This question is especially vexing to me as a Muslim-American since the two wars we are now fighting and the threats we face at home are inexorably tied to conflicts between our nation and the Muslim world. And the problem is not only the widespread belief in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere that America is engaged in a war on Islam but also the fact that many Americans seem to agree.

I was shell-shocked when Stephen Colbert asked Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Gary Wills, "If we were to have another civil war right now, what would be our 'slavery' ... what would be the issue that would divide us as a country?" Mr. Wills gave a one word answer: "Muslims."

That night I felt an onus to change that antipathy. No matter how strongly I may disagree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how traumatic it might be for me to watch the anecdotal reports of misconduct of some soldiers, I must do more to prevent such atrocities by dispelling the notion that Muslims and Americans are in conflict.

When, according to a 2007 Newsweek poll, only 40 percent of those surveyed believe Muslim-Americans are as loyal to America as they are to Islam, we have a lot of work to do.

Yes, we are proud of the thousands of Muslims serving in the military, and yes some, like I did 10 years ago, find solace in serving our veterans in the VA health system. But why not take it a step further? What's wrong with celebrating Independence Day or Veterans Day in American mosques and recognizing our veterans? Why not encourage Muslim youth to serve in the armed forces? If Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart can mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters to restore honor or sanity, why can't Muslim-Americans plan a huge rally for loyalty at the National Mall on Veterans Day 2011?

Heck, at least have a bus with a slogan like "Muslims for Loyalty."

The complexity around this issue of loyalty is now a subject of debate in among Muslims. And Muslim-Americans end up going from one spiritual specialist to another without gaining clarity.

Major Nadal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, followed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, while many like me follow Islamic spiritual leaders who preach the values of peace, tolerance and loyalty to the nations in which we live. I am an Ahmadiyya Muslim, and I follow the teachings of our leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmad. On Oct. 11 2010, he reminded this worldwide community, "As citizens of any country, we Ahmadi Muslims will always show absolute love and loyalty to the state. Whenever a country requires its citizens to make sacrifices, the Ahmadiyya Muslims will always be ready to bear such sacrifices for the sake of the nation."

The path for me and for my fellow Muslim-Americans is clear. I not only thank our soldiers for their honorable services but also join their cause so we all can enjoy the freedoms of America.

Dr. Faheem Younus is a former youth president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. His e-mail is faheem.younus@gmail.com.

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