Feroze Khan was working Sunday morning when the calls began. Friends and family members were watching Colin Powell’s appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when something unexpected happened.
The retired general and former secretary of state spoke of a moving photo of a mother grieving over her son’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.
The deceased was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a 20-year-old corporal who was deployed with a Fort Lewis-based Stryker brigade when he died last year in Iraq.
Powell’s words caught Feroze Khan, Kareem’s father, by total surprise.
“I knew nothing about it at the time,” the New Jersey resident told The News Tribune on Monday. “But I’m quite grateful to Gen. Powell about what he said about my son. Now I’m sure a lot more people are aware of the sacrifice Kareem made.”
Powell appeared on the program to endorse Democrat Barack Obama for president.
Powell said he was concerned about the decision of some in the Republican Party to smear Obama by saying he’s a Muslim. And, Powell asked anchor Tom Brokaw, should it matter if Obama or any other presidential candidate was a Muslim?
That’s when he mentioned a photo essay in an issue of The New Yorker last month. The final image was one of Elsheba Khan, Kareem’s mother.
“One picture, at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery,” Powell said. “And she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. As the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. It gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – (and it) showed he died in Iraq. It gave his date of birth, date of death; he was 20 years old.
“And at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and the star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11. And he waited until he could go serve his country, and he gave his life.”
Khan served with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, a unit of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
He and three others from Fort Lewis were killed Aug. 6, 2007, when bombs exploded in a house they were clearing in Baqouba. Just hours earlier, the four were on a humanitarian mission, ensuring food and relief supplies were delivered to women and children in the city.
Khan joined the Army in 2005 after graduating from high school in Manahawkin, N.J.
“Kareem grew up wanting to be an American soldier,” Feroze Khan said Monday. “That’s all he ever wanted to be, that’s all he ever talked about. When he enlisted, there was a job that needed to be done.”
During the memorial service last year for the four killed in the incident, the commander of the battalion’s rear detachment called Khan “an extremely empathetic individual.”
“His radar was always on for buddies who were sad,” Capt. Dan Johnson said. “I can say that if you only met Khan once, you’d always remember his smile.”
But this week he’s being remembered for something other than his smile: his Muslim faith.
James Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at Fort Lewis and an Obama delegate at the Democratic National Convention, was pleased Monday.
“What Powell said was what we’ve wanted Obama to say this whole time,” said Yee, an Olympia resident. “That was just tremendous.”
Yee was accused in 2003 of being part of a spy ring at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. He was later exonerated and honorably discharged from the Army with the rank of captain.
The Islamic chapel at Fort Lewis is no longer open, a post spokesman said Monday. He didn’t have statistics available on the number of Muslim soldiers at Fort Lewis.
Meanwhile, Kareem Khan’s father said his son was simply focused on serving his country.
“With Kareem, it was never about religion,” Feroze Khan said. “We never got any negative feedback for being Muslim. Being a soldier was his job, and he prepared himself to do it to the best of his abilities.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-597-8646