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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Desert Duty Taps Roots of Jordan-Born Marine

Osama B. Shofani says his heritage has led to hostility but given him a valuable perspective.

March 09, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait — As a Jordanian native and a 17-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, a fluent Arabic speaker and an American combat participant in the Persian Gulf War, Gunnery Sgt. Osama B. Shofani has often felt the conflicting tugs of his roots in two parts of the world.

Traveling in Bahrain with Marine buddies a few years ago, Shofani haggled in Arabic with a taxi driver, arranging a much lower price than the amount the cabby initially quoted. But then the driver got mad, cursing Shofani and calling him a traitor to Arabs.

Nor are tensions absent at home in Hawthorne, where Shofani lives with his Mexican American wife and four children. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Shofani called Southern California Edison about a routine service matter. After he gave his first name, the woman on the line went silent.

"For 30 seconds, she froze. I couldn't even hear her breathing," Shofani recalled. "She finally said: 'I'm sorry, I can't help you. I'm going to get someone else to talk to you.'

"I'd been in the Marines 15 years straight when that happened to me," he said. "It's tough to go through that, to have someone treat you like that when you know you've put your life on the line for your country."

Now Shofani, whose middle name is Bishari, finds himself in the Middle East again, as a small part of a massive buildup of American troops here in the Kuwaiti desert but as one of the few service members who can look at the situation from the perspective of an Arab heritage.

"It's obviously hard in a lot of ways," he said, especially when Middle Easterners ask him why he's an Arab "fighting other Arab nations."

Yet, added Shofani, 35, a barrel-chested man with a hearty laugh, "in other ways I really do love it. I love the position I'm in.

"I understand both sides," he said. "I feel I can help people on all sides of this understand a bit better. And there's certainly a lot of curiosity out there. So it's almost like being an ambassador to the region."

More than 3,500 Arab Americans serve in the U.S. armed forces, according to the Assn. of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military, an organization created after the 2001 attacks.

Shofani, who has lived in Southern California since his family moved there from Jordan in 1978, is California director of the group. He describes it as both a service organization for Arab American military personnel and an advocacy group that seeks to inform fellow citizens about the contribution Arab Americans make to the services.

Having served in combat during Operation Desert Storm 12 years ago -- when he saw two friends die and a third lose part of his leg in a mine explosion -- Shofani is back in Kuwait with a very different role, this one of a humanitarian nature.

He is a forward command post chief for a unit known as the Combined/Joint Task Force in Consequence Management, a U.S.-led force trained to help civilians affected by a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. The unit, whose deployment must be authorized by both the State and Defense departments, includes American, German and Czech experts and is based at Camp Doha, on the outskirts of Kuwait City.

Shofani and his unit could be called in to help Kuwaitis, Iraqis or others in the region if weapons of mass destruction are used in a conflict. The unit, with a large fleet of sophisticated monitoring vehicles, is trained to decontaminate people and equipment, provide medical help and, when possible, contain the extent of any damage.

"It's a whole different responsibility, saving lives rather than being a combatant," said Shofani. "I feel good about it. It's helping other human beings survive an atrocity.

"But the Marine inside you still wants to go out and hold that pistol or rifle and do your job," he said. "You want to be with the forward element and fight the battle.

"When you're a Marine," he continued, "you want to be with fellow Marines in harm's way. You want to know that the Marine on your right or your left is surviving because you're doing your job."

As a Roman Catholic of Palestinian heritage who spent his first 10 years in a town just outside the Jordanian capital, Amman, Shofani has strong views about the politics and religious currents of the Middle East -- about how, he said, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have let their people down and "how things might turn sour for us" even if the United States and its allies were to secure a quick military victory in Iraq.

But in the main, he said, "they are my own opinions, and I try to leave them to the side. My commitment is to the Corps."

Shofani plans to spend a few more years in the military.

He is not sure what he will do after retiring, though his "ideal job" would be to work as a consultant to the film industry on military issues and Arabic culture.

Although he has encountered some hostility in the civilian world because of his heritage, Shofani says he has seen very little in the military -- where, he says, people judge others by how well they do their work and the loyalty they demonstrate to their comrades.

As he haggled with the taxi operator in Bahrain, his Marine friends, sensing the argument even if they could not understand the exchange, showed their loyalty by asking Shofani if he needed help dealing with the driver.

"I said I could take care of it -- it's normal to haggle over a price," Shofani said. "I didn't want an international incident. So I told my buddies: 'It's OK. Don't worry about it.' I said to them, 'If I tried to explain the whole Arab culture, it would take a while.' "

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