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Soldier says she faced harassment over Muslim name

Wednesday - 5/8/2013, 7:28pm  ET

CORRECTS CHANGED NAME TO NAIDA CHRISTIAN NOVA, NOT NADIA CHRISTIAN NOVA - Sgt. 1st Class Naida Hosan is shown in this undated U.S. Army photo provided by Sgt. Nova. With her family name emblazoned on her uniform, the sergeant says she was routinely the target of derogatory remarks from other soldiers who mistakenly assumed she is a Muslim. So before deploying for her second war tour, the life-long Catholic legally changed her name to Naida Christian Nova. The 82nd Airborne, who in a federal lawsuit she claims branded her a “Muslim sympathizer,” revoked her security clearance and tried to force her out of the Army with a less than honorable discharge. (AP Photo/US Army)

Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Sgt. 1st Class Naida Hosan is not a Muslim -- she's a Catholic. But her name sounded Islamic to fellow U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and they would taunt her, calling her "Sgt. Hussein" and asking what God she prayed to.

So before deploying to Afghanistan last year for her second war tour, she legally changed her name -- to Naida Christian Nova.

This did not solve her problems.

Instead, matters escalated. Nova complained to her superiors about constant anti-Muslim slurs and jokes. She says they responded with a series of reprisals intended to drive her out of the Army, leading her to consider suicide.

"My complaints fell on deaf ears every time," said Nova, 41, a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C. "Any time I would say something about it I was treated like I didn't know what I was talking about or that I'm an idiot or that I was a Muslim sympathizer. It was just a very lonely feeling."

Determined to remain in the service for at least eight years, until she is eligible for retirement, Nova recently re-enlisted. But she agreed to tell her story to The Associated Press because "I don't want this to happen to anyone else if I can help it. It's a horrible to feel like people are against you when you are supposed to be on the same team."

Fort Bragg spokeswoman Sheri L. Crowe said the Army would not comment on the case, and referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, assigned to defend the Army, also declined comment.

But her account is supported by an affidavit filed by an old friend, Sharon Deborah Sheetz, who said that Nova had confided in her about the harassment she had suffered, telling Sheetz that she was so unhappy that she no longer wanted to live.

A Farsi linguist who works in military intelligence, Nova's multicultural background exemplifies the kind of soldier Army recruiters prize -- U.S. citizens with ethnic ties to a part of the world many Americans can't find on a map.

Nova's father, Roy Hosein, was born into a Muslim family on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where his parents had emigrated from India. He converted to Christianity after meeting Nova's mother, a Catholic from the Philippines, and became a U.S. citizen shortly after his daughter was born in New York. He changed the spelling of his family name to Hosan in the hope his children would avoid discrimination.

"He Americanized it," his daughter explained. "He got Hosan from Hosanna. He kept hearing it in church."

She reported for basic training two months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Before 9-11, my last name never raised an eyebrow," she said. "But after 9-11, I felt compelled to tell people I am a Christian and felt I had to prove I was loyal to the United States."

Her first deployment was to Iraq in 2005. She said other soldiers, including her supervisors, mocked her family name and made crude jokes.

"I was called Sgt. Hussein, as in Saddam Hussein," she said. "Even when I would correct them on the pronunciation of my name, I was still called Sgt. Hussein. I was asked what God I pray to. And there were a lot of references to hajjis, used as a derogatory term."

Hajiis, in fact, are Muslims who have made the pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. But Nova said she regularly heard U.S. troops use the word as racist slang for enemy, terrorist or suicide bomber.

"My uncle is a hajji, because he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2005," Nova said. "I would stand up for what I thought was right and say, 'Not all terrorists are Muslims and not all Muslims are terrorists.' That just opened the door for more harassment."

Mikey Weinstein, a former U.S. Air Force officer who founded Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said Nova's experience is not uncommon. Military personnel who are Muslim or perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent are often targets for discrimination, he said.

"When a Muslim soldier, sailor or airman stands up for themselves, they are the subject of vicious reprisal and retribution," said Weinstein, who is Jewish. "What (Sgt. Nova) has gone through is horrible, but it is typical."

In 2007, while serving in Harrogate, England, Nova said co-worker told her and others a racist joke about Muslims. When she objected, Nova said, a supervisor warned her to stop making trouble. Instead, she filed a formal complaint with the Army's Equal Opportunity Branch, the program charged with ensuring the military provides an environment "free of unlawful discrimination and offensive behavior."

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