Rajai Hakki has tried to ignore the Fort Hood massacre.
The 28-year-old Iraq War vet quit college to join the U.S. Marines after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 out of a mix of patriotism and shame.
"I wanted to show that Arab Americans are patriotic people, that Arab Americans are proud to be members of this country," Hakki said. "I wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes." Hakki was born in Pennsylvania. His parents immigrated from Syria. He was deployed to Iraq twice.
At the Fort Hood military base, an Arab American named Nidal Malik Hasan stands accused of killing 13 people and wounding 29 last week, reportedly shouting "Allahu Akbar" in the process.
"It's like someone taking everything you've worked for and ruining it," said Hakki, who spent most of Veterans Day in his parents' house in Washington, D.C., sitting around in thermal underwear and a T-shirt, avoiding the news and the rain.
"It's just upsetting because as a veteran I should be sitting around feeling good about myself, and yet I feel like a story like this just ruins Veterans Day," he said. "My whole life has been the War on Terror. I tried to be the antithesis of this person."
Hakki left the Marine Corps in 2006. He's been outspoken about his service in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He worked as a linguist for interrogations and counterintelligence operations during the second battle of Fallujah, some of the most intense fighting of the war. The BBC wrote about his work as a translator in 2004:
One day Rajai's team went into a house and was greeted by an old man and his two sons. "The man was so nice. He served us tea and no topic was off limits. We discussed politics and shared family pictures," Rajai recalls. As they left the house, a commander came and ordered them to go back and arrest the two sons because this was a "target house". Rajai had no option but to obey orders. He returned and placed bags over the sons' heads and led them away, as their father looked on in silence.
"That kind of thing was always tough," Hakki told the Huffington Post. "I understood everything they said. 'Sorry, we have to arrest your son now...We have to arrest your only breadwinner now.'"
Hakki recently returned from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he'd spent five months working for a contractor as an Arabic translator.
He spent most of his life in D.C. (he went to the same high school as this reporter). His family is Muslim, he said, but he is an atheist.
Since his honorable discharge three years ago, Hakki has participated in public debates about the war with other veterans. He said that at the end of an event at American University, where he was enrolled, a student at the School of International Service asked him how it felt to go to Iraq and fight against "fellow Arabs."
Hakki deeply resented -- and still does -- the insinuation that he was some kind of "race traitor." But despite that resentment, he said he has some "latent feelings of guilt" from the front lines: "Ransacking people's houses looking for intelligence -- it didn't feel good."
Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter, is a devout Muslim who reportedly felt deeply conflicted about fighting other Muslims during his looming deployment. He complained of anti-Muslim harassment in the Army (Hakki said he never experienced anti-Muslim or anti-Arab harassment in the Marines).
Hakki said his co-workers jokingly said he resembled Hasan.
"I do look like him a little," he said. He was shocked when told Hasan had survived the incident. "String him up," he said.