TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A U.S. Air Force Airman from the 821st Contingency Response Squadron, is among the first to be granted a religious accommodation for a shaving waiver based on his Muslim faith after the Air Force released new guidance in 2016 to accommodate individuals with religious requests.
In 2011, while stationed in a remote part of Turkey, in the ancient town of Izmir, Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan found himself exposed to a new culture and in a town with deep religious history.
“I was surrounded by very deep Christian history, so I naturally felt I needed to strengthen my spiritual life,” he said. “I began to read the Bible from a different perspective and mindset, with this I was pulled into the theology of Christianity.”
Gaitan understood the importance of resiliency, specifically spiritual resilience which is defined as the ability to sustain an individual's sense of self and purpose through a set of beliefs, principles or values.
Spiritual resiliency, along with mental, physical and social, are recognized as the four pillars that comprise the Comprehensive Airmen Fitness initiative intended on maximizing the whole Airman concept. Each domain has separate key concepts, but all add together to create a checklist that can help one drive toward success.
Raised in a Catholic environment, Gaitan’s family followed the traditional formalities that came with the religion.
“As a Hispanic, Catholicism is intertwined with our culture, food and way of life,” Gaitan explained. “Religiously, I only went to church because I felt I had to. I followed the Catholic ‘playbook’ growing up…I was part of Bible Clubs, I went to many youth retreats, and tried hard to be a person of faith, but it always felt unnatural, no matter how hard I tried.”
During his quest to find the answer he needed to develop his spiritual life, Gaitan began to feel uncomfortable with some of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, so he left the faith.
As time passed, Gaitan began to grow a friendship with an older Turkish man and his son who ran a small shop at the bottom of the building where he lived.
“This family was always reading the Quran and I was so moved by their relationship with their religion. When the call to prayer went on they stopped everything and began to pray,” Gaitan said. “Every time I heard the call to prayer and saw men and women going to the mosque or praying in their shop, I felt the peace and tranquility the five daily prayers gave them.”
The following year, Gaitan moved to Hawaii for his next duty station and found himself longing for the peace, tranquility and brotherhood he felt Islam offered him in Turkey.
“When I left Turkey, I felt as if a little bit of myself was left behind,” he said. “I began to read the Quran and the more I learned, the more I was drawn to its teachings. It was something so simple, but yet so breathtaking to me, everything felt so natural and the way it was supposed to be.”
As Gaitan began his journey to learn more about the faith of Islam, he visited a mosque in Hawaii and met with the Iman to talk about his experience and to discuss questions he had about the religion.
“I took the Shahada, which is the declaration of faith, and never looked back,” he said.
As a practicing Muslim who’s made the conscious choice to follow Islam, Gaitan said he understands he will be faced with challenges and religious barriers he will have to overcome.
The biggest challenge yet, was getting approval for his shaving waiver from Air Force Headquarters. This required endorsement by the unit commander, base chaplain, installation commander up to the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, Personnel Division. This process took Gaitan almost four years to accomplish.
The Air Force has many resources available to Airmen that provide help in strengthening the four pillars of wellness, such as the Airman and Family Readiness Center, Base Chapel, Health and Wellness Center, Family Advocacy and many others.
“Being in the military, I feel like many people don’t understand Islam and are only going by opinions formulated from every breaking news headline about extremist Muslims or relating the term Muslim from a recent deployment experience,” Gaitan said. “Many times, people are only exposed to one side of Islam and they draw an image from only negative information.”
Gaitan said he wishes others would understand that Muslims grow their beards in an act of worship and devotion to God, it is not just a status or a fashion symbol.
“Beards in Islam are considered Al-Fitrah, meaning the natural way man was created. Islam is an Abrahamic faith and we consider the prophets and messengers role models whom we look up to. When we follow the actions of Prophet Muhammed, it is considered following the Sunnah. Following the Sunnah is an act of worship and big emphasis is put on it,” Gaitan said. “It is a constant reminder of our faith and who we are as Muslims.”
Being able to grow a beard while in the military has been a huge milestone for Gaitan, but he has also faced some religious backlash because of it.
“A month after I started growing my beard, someone shooed me away with their hand saying very negative things because I was a Muslim. A week later, another person from a different squadron felt comfortable enough to ask me if I had joined ISIS,” Gaitan said. “These two incidents weren’t the only ones, earlier that year someone openly questioned if I was a terrorist.”
Luckily, Gaitan feels fortunate to be surrounded by great peers and leadership who support him.
“The silver lining to all this was the reaction from my peers when this incident happened,” he said. “Like a lion jumping to rescue a member of their pack, another Airman stood to my defense. I will never forget what she did for the rest of my life.”
As news traveled up the chain-of-command, Gaitan felt a sense of protection and brotherhood from those around him.
“The incident shot straight to the commander, like a lightning bolt, and the following morning I was called into his office with the chief and first sergeant waiting for me,” he said. “In my entire career, I’ve never had a commander look me in the eyes like he did…his look, tone, words and posture were shouting at me, ‘don’t worry, we have your back.’”
After the incident, the commander held an all-call and in-front of everyone resonated the Air Force’s “zero tolerance” for discrimination against any person no matter the race, color, religion, age, cultural heritage or chosen identity.
The commander began the all-call saying, “we all work for one Air Force, we serve the same country and we are part of the same family.”
“I was moved beyond words,” Gaitan said. “For seven years, I’ve heard negative things about my religion, but that day after the commander passionately defended everyone who feels they are ‘different’, I walked out of there with a feeling I had never felt as a Hispanic Muslim Airman. I finally felt like I was fully part of the Air Force family and that my peers and my leadership would fight to protect me.”