To many of those who have worn the uniform, it represents more than a title. Being a Marine is an identity.
"They say once a Marine always a Marine. It’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life, you know?" said Mansoor Shams.
Shams came to the United States from Pakistan when he was six. At 18, he chose to serve his country.
“As corny as I may sound, a bit later, I decided I wanted to become part of the best, ‘The few, the proud, the Marines.’ So, I decided to join the Marine Corps,” Shams said.
He served for four years in the Marine Corps and reached the rank of corporal. About a year into his service came September 11, 2001.
Shams was serving at a base in North Carolina at the time.
“You hear about the first plane hitting the tower and then you hear another one. And just like most Americans, there was a lot of confusion,” Shams said. “The third and the fourth strike, our base essentially went on red alert.”
Now, 20 years later, as we reflect on how the day changed many of the ways we approach life, this U.S. Marine will tell you it changed how others approached him.
“It was something unexpected because we have a famous saying in the military that we all bleed green,” Shams said. “In the beginning, I sort of laughed it off when I got called things, like a terrorist, Bin Laden, and Taliban.”
“I don't think that the entire Marine Corps or the entire U.S. military is a bunch of racists or bigots. But racism and bigotry and hatred, phobias, islamophobia, do exist within the ranks of the military, which showed clearly for me as a Marine, who was serving prior to 9/11 and when 9/11 took place and after 9/11,” Shams said.
Even though Muslim Americans are among the close to 3,000 people killed on 9/11, and in Arlington National Cemetery tombstones mark where many have given their lives for this country, assaults against Muslims rose in the years after 9/11, increasing by more than seven times in 2001 alone.
“Nineteen individuals, so-called Muslims, have essentially affected an entire faith of 1.8 billion people around the world, which is so crazy. It’s so unjust. How can that be?” Shams said.
In the face of hate, Shams tried educating those he served with.
“I was able to help some Marines but wasn’t able to remove the phobias of many others,” Shams said.
Today as a civilian, he continues the work as the founder of MuslimMarine.org.
He travels as a speaker, a teacher, and a veteran, trying to help his country gain a better perspective.
“I went at it in a very genuine, sort of aspect of myself, to just come before fellow Americans, (and say), ‘Hey let's have a conversation, let's talk things out. What’s on your mind?’” Shams said.
Shams has grown a Twitter following of more than 50,000 and says his direct messages are always open so he can continue to interact with people online.
He’s had moments of optimism but says the reality, now two decades after 9/11, is that inequality is still very much part of the Muslim experience in America.
“Every year when 9/11 comes around, which is this hashtag of #NeverForget starts trending, and again these are the micro-aggressions America has to think about. There is a segment of the American population or the American public that looks at ‘never forget’ as it was ‘those’ people, people who look like me, never forget ‘them,’” Shams said. “Never forget those Muslims, likewise, there is a segment of America that just wants to reflect on that day, but these are things are realities that are taking place, if ‘never forget’ is meant to say don’t forget someone that looks like me then obviously, we’ve missed the point, right? We missed the point of remembering those innocent 3,000 people who lost their lives.”
Shams says he might have stayed in the Marine Corps longer had he not faced the kind of harassment he did after the attacks of 2001. But his service continues by helping fellow Americans better understand the almost 3.5 million people who are Muslim and call this country their own.
“I get to show America another narrative, such as that, Muslims have been serving since the days of George Washington, that Muslims have died serving this nation, that Muslims continue to serve to this very day in various capacities. Not just as someone a service member, as physicians, as engineers, as teachers, in various professions to make America a better place for everyone,” Shams said.