It’s an unlikely story: a little girl from Egypt, the only girl in a family of five children, immigrates to the United States at age ten and emerges from her patriarchal roots to join the U.S. Army, eventually advancing to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and serving a twenty-year career. Unlikely though it is, it is the story of my mother.
Mom was born in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, to an Egyptian police officer and his German-Egyptian homemaker wife. To make a really long story short, when things got rough in Egypt politically, my grandparents left the country for Saudi Arabia, where life was calmer and safer. After two years, though, upon realizing that girls could only go to school through the third grade in Saudi Arabia, my grandparents made the decision to pick up their life again and move. This time, they came to the United States, where they knew not a single person.
Life as new Americans was rough for several years. My grandfather found out that his university degree was not recognized in the United States, and my mother and her brothers experienced horrible, incessant bullying at school for having darker skin and not speaking English. The “Egyptian Germs” (a reference to both their Egyptian and German heritage), they were often called, their classmates telling them to go back to the desert because that’s where “desert rats” belong. My mom relays these stories yet today, the painful memories still evident in her eyes.
Mom and her brothers and parents became American citizens in 1965, five years after their arrival from Saudi Arabia. They had learned to speak English by that time, and as proud new Americans, changed their family name from the Arabic Sakr to the American/English Johnson. You don’t see that much anymore – people from other countries changing their names to become “more American”, but times were different back then.
At first, we had court-ordered visits with my father… dreaded occasions if you ask me. My memories of him, though vague, are not positive. It didn’t take long for that to change, though. Within a couple of years, my father, pretty much a dead beat from the start, dropped out of the picture completely. No birthday cards, no phone calls, no child support for my mom. We never heard from him again after about 1984.As is traditional in Islamic culture, women are expected to marry Muslim men, and my mother was no exception. She married my father, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and also from Egypt, in 1974. My sister was born three years later, and two years after that, I came along. The marriage was far from happy, and my mom courageously filed for divorce in 1981.
My mom had studied her way through college in her twenties, before getting married, to become an R.N. After my father dropped off the face of the earth, Mom faced a major dilemma: how to raise her two very young girls on her own. As a nurse, she often worked night shifts, which made life extra difficult when it came to finding child care. She weighed her options and decided to join the U.S. Army. In service to her country with the Army Nurse Corps, Mom was able to make a better life for all of us.
When Mom joined the Army in 1981, she was once again very much immersed in a society dominated by men. We believe that my mother was the first-ever Muslim immigrant woman to serve in the U.S. Army. Though we don’t have formal documentation to prove that, Mom has done extensive research on the matter and has not found any information to suggest that this is not the case.
I’m not sure if Mom intended to make a career out of the Army when she first joined, but that is what happened. A decorated Officer, she served at several U.S. posts, as well as overseas in Germany and Korea. She was promoted through the years, advancing to the rank of Lt. Colonel by the time she retired in October 2001- just a month after September 11th. Probably most significantly during her Army career, while we were stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, Mom met my dad, also an Army nurse who ended up serving a twenty-year career. My dad’s entry into our lives changed us forever. He took my sister and me in as his own flesh and blood and is generally the best dad I could ever imagine… but I will save more on that for a later post.
Today, it seems that veterans are recognized on a daily basis for their contributions to protecting American freedom. However, during my parents’ careers, this was not the case. I do not recall special treatment and kudos in general daily life towards veterans. But it should have been this way. My parents treated the wounded during Operation: Desert Storm. They each served a year-long unaccompanied tour in Korea near the DMZ. My dad was on the ground for six months in Somalia in 1993. I don’t remember people coming up to shake their hands and thank them for their service in airports and other public places.
So, on this Veteran’s Day, and Mom’s 62nd birthday, I am publicly and formally thanking my parents for their service and for all of the sacrifices they made for our country and for us as a family. And especially to my mom, the strongest, kindest woman I know: Happy Veteran’s Day, and happy birthday. You make me proud to be your daughter every day, and I love you so much.
Thank you for reading!