By Don Wagner, Army News Service
Army Islamic Chaplain Lt. Col. Ibraheem Raheem said he has “phenomenal relationships” with his Jewish chaplain colleagues.
He fondly recalled that many years ago, while assigned to the 41st Signal Battalion at Camp Coiner in Yongsan, Korea, he was invited to the home of a Jewish colleague to observe Passover Seder dinner with his family.
“It was a very welcoming and educational experience,” Raheem said. “All of the food was delicious and prepared with visual perfection, and each item held a traditional message.
“It reminded me of our Eid and Iftar celebrations that are centered around a meal and that are community oriented.”
Raheem is one of five Islamic chaplains out of the 1,445 Army chaplains on active duty. As all chaplains do, he pledged to provide religious and spiritual support to all Soldiers and family members, regardless of their faith.
Raheem said some Soldiers have refused his support because of his Islamic faith, but it doesn’t bother him. He lives by the chaplain’s motto of “perform or provide.”
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Raheem conducts services in the chapel for a congregation of about 30 Muslims.
He said Jummuah or the Friday prayer is challenging for Muslims to attend because it falls in the middle of the duty day and often requires coordination and religious accommodation.
Raheem performs two Islamic official holidays, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting during daylight hours.
Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim, also known as Abraham, to follow Allah’s (God’s) command to sacrifice his son.
Raheem has been training fellow Army chaplains in Clinical Pastoral Education since late 2014. He began this training at Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio, and continues it now at Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM.
Raheem said Clinical Pastoral Education focuses on pastoral formation, development and reflection. He said that chaplains become more self-aware of how and why they function as individuals and in groups.
Raheem said the training prepares chaplains for clinical assignments such as combat ministry, correctional facilities, palliative care, oncology, intensive care, surgery, pediatrics, labor and delivery, behavioral health and emergency medicine for Soldiers and their families worldwide.
As a chaplain clinician, Raheem said, he ministers to both patients and their families. In the hospital setting, he has seen those who were dying due to motor vehicle accidents, still-born births, and terminal illness.
“These patients needed spiritual care that spoke to their pain, suffering, and understanding of death and afterlife,” Raheem said.
A few years ago, Raheem provided spiritual care to a 26-year-old Army corporal, terminally ill with lung cancer, who was in pain and suffering at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.
The Soldier, a Christian, did not mind that Raheem was a Muslim. He was just happy to have someone with him throughout his suffering.
“During the time, we landed in a place of spiritual peace with his faith,” Raheem said.
Raheem thought this experience was the highlight of his ministry as a chaplain. He was wrong. The highlight of his career was yet to come.
The cancer in the Soldier’s lungs was growing and preventing his ability to breathe. Doctors eventually had to inform the patient that he had just days to live.
With that news, the Soldier requested two things from Raheem. The first was to see the ocean for one last time. The second was to marry his fiancé, to whom he had been engaged prior to the onset of his cancer.
“The medical staff was reluctant to grant his request to leave the hospital, concerned that he would not have enough oxygen during transit,” Raheem said.
“After a great deal of consulting and coordinating with staff and the multidisciplinary care team, we were able to grant the dying Soldier his wishes. I collaborated with a Christian chaplain colleague to perform his marriage.
“We conducted his wedding ceremony in his hospital room. Hours after he married his wife, he died. The Soldier’s family was grateful that we were able to bring meaning and honor to the last moments of his life.”
As a chaplain for more than 18 years, Raheem said he can’t count the number of people he has been able to serve.
Raheem was raised a Baptist. He said that he was unaware that there was anything other than Christianity until he enlisted into the military and met people from a multitude of faith backgrounds.
His family was supportive and open-minded about his becoming Muslim.
His spiritual journey began while he was working in the intensive care unit in Landstuhl, Germany, in 1992.
Raheem said he was led to convert to Islam when he experienced a ‘miraculous recovery” of a patient on life support in the ICU.
“What stood out during the Christian patient’s recovery was the chaplain’s role <FZ,1,0,30>with the patient and family during a time when all medical expertise was exhausted, and the doctors notified the family that there was nothing more that could be done,” Raheem said.
“The patient later recovered and walked out of the ICU. For me, that led to a period of soul-searching and the studying of religions.”
Raheem was eventually invited to attend a local mosque in Volgelweh, Germany, in 1993. He spent about a year reading the Qur’an and learning about Islam from an Air Force master sergeant, who served as a mentor to him.
Afterward, he became convinced that Islam was a belief system he had always followed but that he had never recognized for what it is.
“I realized that though I was raised Baptist, it was the values [of Islam] that I had always believed,” Raheem said.
Raheem converted to the Islamic faith and became Muslim at age 26.
He later sought training and endorsement from another mentor, retired chaplain Lt. Col. Abdul Rasheed Muhammad. He has the distinction of being the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces. He now serves as a Muslim chaplain endorser.
In 1994, Raheem completed a pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca, a requirement of Islam. He said the monthlong trip also included an Umrah, or visit to Medina, the city of the prophet Muhammed.
“While visiting Mecca, I met people from all over the world that shared my faith,” Raheem said. “I had always longed for this type of unity, having grown up in a segregated area of Kansas City.”
Tradition Of Service
After graduating from Washington High School in 1985, Raheem enlisted in the Army in 1986. He said he had a passion to serve that was driven in part by the fact that his father, grandfather and several uncles were combat veterans.
He completed basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and later completed the Combat Medical Specialist Course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in 1986.
Raheem said he has always been attracted to the “helping professions.” He has always been intrigued with the human body and helping others in pain. In 1989, he completed the Army’s Practical Nurse Course at Fort Gordon, Ga.
In 1997, Raheem felt called to enter the military ministry as an Army chaplain.
He applied to the Chaplain Candidate Program in 1998 and was commissioned into the program that year. He entered active duty as a chaplain in 1999.
“For the most part, people treat you with the same amount of respect you show them,” Raheem said. “I have been received well by most service members that I have served with. However, whenever there is negative media coverage and misinformation about my faith, I notice a greater need to increase dialogue and invite conversation about what Muslims believe.”
Raheem said he hopes that Soldiers, families and civilians of all faiths will continue to seek him out for spiritual and religious support.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a four-part series exploring how chaplains of different faiths serve all Soldiers.