FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Khaled Abou Rashad may have immigrated to the United States from Syria when he was only a boy, but these days he does something that few of his countrymen do: Build and detonate large quantities of high explosives.
Rashad, a captain in the 192d Ordnance Battalion (EOD), is the Army’s first Muslim-American bomb disposal expert officer, a choice Rashad told Duffel Blog he made to help challenge popular stereotypes.
"Because we have this reputation as being extremely peaceful and pacifist, most people never make the connection between Muslims and bombs or things blowing up," Rashad says. "I felt I needed to show my fellow soldiers that we can be just as dedicated and extreme as the next man."
After getting his degree from the University of Michigan in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Sharia Pre-Law, Rashad went through Officer Candidate School at the insistence of his parents. "After 9/11, my father said America has been very good to us and we should be good right back. He always says, 'When you think about America, you need to remember 9/11.' So that's what I think about, all day long: 9/11," Rashad said, a smile forming on his face.
Rashad has already completed three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with Joint Task Force Paladin, the Army's premier deployed EOD command. Rashad said that in addition to his regular duties, he also frequently found himself as a cultural ambassador and even a teacher to many of the locals.
"Many of the Afghans I met couldn't believe that I was both Muslim and an expert in explosives," he said. "I mean the two are just such alien concepts in their culture, like female drivers or sit-down toilets."
But that didn't stop them from coming by Rashad's hooch with what he said were surprisingly-detailed questions: What's the best mix to use in an explosively formed projectile or how sturdy does a pressure plate have to be to set off an MRAP but not a truck?
With the energetic approval of his brigade commander, Col. Felix Slow, Rashad began teaching classes in his spare time on the proper manufacture, emplacement, and disposal of explosives.
"Rashad has done amazing things here," Slow explained. "Before Rashad arrived, we found it impossible to get the Afghans excited about simple things like literacy. But now they spend hours on the internet researching Google search terms like 'anti-armor.' They even have a nickname for him: Abu Boombala. I'm sure they're all going to be experts in the counter-IED fight."
Soon after being interviewed, Rashad had to cancel the classes when enemy activity suddenly skyrocketed in all nearby districts. He also had a more personal setback when his fellow soldiers accidentally killed four students of his who were digging holes in the road. Rashad has promised not to let the tragedy affect him.
"I've already set up an online forum to help promote tolerance and understanding between Afghans," Rashad said, "complete with an EOD video I made about how awesome America is." The video, which features Rashad shouting the names of U.S. cities superimposed over footage of explosions, became a runaway hit in the Middle East.
Rashad hopes he'll be able to continue what he calls his "jihad for tolerance" even after he leaves the Army.
"I'm still two years away from my separation date and I've already received job offers from several ranchers in Nevada. I've never herded cattle, but the owner assured me I would be doing something completely different."
Duffel Blog correspondent Dick Scuttlebutt contributed to this article.