Islamic NCO 'Paying It Forward' in Iraq
April 14, 2008
CAMP TAJI, Iraq (Army News Service, April 14, 2008) - Throughout his life, Staff Sgt. Steven Atlas said he has tried to live by one philosophy: "pay it forward." The basic principle of this creed is simple: if he helps you, then in return, you should try to help someone else.
<b> Man of the House </b>
Atlas grew up in a single-parent home and at an early age he was forced to become an adult faster than many of his friends.
"My mom and dad separated when I was really young, so my mom had to raise me and my three sisters without any help," said Atlas, a computer systems maintainer. "Being brought up in a predominantly female household meant that I had to play the role of big brother, and sometimes dad, to my sisters. This was something that a lot of my friends didn't have to experience and helped me to mature at an early age."
Being forced into this role wasn't the biggest obstacle that he would face as a young man; he was also forced to watch as two of his sisters lost their battles with cancer.
"My older sister passed away when I was in junior high, and my younger sister passed away when I was going into my freshman year of high school," said Atlas, a native of Chicago.
"Having to help take care of my sisters while they were dealing with the chemotherapy, and being hospitalized so much, forced me to look at things in a more adult perspective. I was never that kid who was just able to sit back and play video games, or just go outside and play whenever I wanted."
<b> Living Positively </b>
Taking care of his sisters, he said, was something that motivated him to do better in life instead of getting sucked into the trouble found throughout his neighborhood.
"Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, I learned that if you weren't careful you could easily find yourself in a bad situation," said Atlas. "I think I owed it to my mom, if not myself, to be the first one of her children to graduate from high school and go on to do something positive because she saw so much bad stuff throughout her life."
After graduating from high school, he chose to put his goal of joining the military on hold to help support his family while his mother went back to school to get a degree. He got a job working in a restaurant owned by his uncle to help support his mother and youngest sister.
"Once she completed her degree, I went to her and said 'this is my time, I want to join the Army and I feel this is my time to do it,'" said Atlas. "She didn't want me joining at that time because it was (during the peak) of Desert Shield/Desert Storm; I told her that there was never a 'good time' to join because the Army's job is to fight wars and if you're not fighting you're training to fight."
His mother received a bachelor's degree in sociology and worked as counselor helping unwed teenage mothers in Chicago for many years, paying it forward.
<b> Soldier of Islamic Faith </b>
When Atlas joined the Army, he first joined as a laboratory technician but later became a Signal Soldier.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to join the military; I just didn't know which branch to join," he said. "Talking with Army recruiters helped me make that choice."
Throughout his 16 years in the military, he has tried to continue to live by his "pay it forward" principle. He tries to provide Soldiers with not only knowledge from his career, but also from his religion.
"I've had some ups and downs being a of the Islam faith, especially during 9/11, because many people tried to categorize all Muslims with the ones who carried out those attacks," said Atlas, who is now married with three children. "I think I've been able to change those beliefs in many of the people I have come across by giving Islamic cultural awareness classes and letting them know what we do and what we believe, as opposed to what they have seen on TV."
"After I found out about his religious background, I asked him to give a class to the Soldiers and he was really excited about doing it," said Task Force XII Command Sgt. Maj. H. Lee Kennedy, who is also one of Atlas' mentors.
The Soldiers who attended that class received information about Islamic culture and are able to tell the difference between a person of Islamic faith and an Islamic extremist.
"He's a very eager and understanding young man, and it's a pleasure to guide him," said Kennedy. "Leadership in units may come and go, and won't affect the unit too much, but when Soldiers like Atlas leave units, everyone loses out."
In addition to Kennedy, Atlas also considers his roommate, Sgt. Archie Martin, to be a mentor and close friend.
"(Atlas) is an outstanding noncommissioned officer who is very knowledgeable and caring," said Martin. "He has really helped me learn more about my job and how to be a better Soldier."
Martin, an AH-64D Longbow Apache maintainer by Military Occupational Specialty, uses his spare time to help Soldiers who work long hours fixing Apaches, paying it forward.
<b> Paying it Forward </b>
Atlas tries to spread some of his knowledge and lessons learned in life to anyone in need of guidance.
"If I do something good for one or two people, it will let them see that there are still people out there doing good things and in turn maybe they'll do good thing," said Atlas.
There are plenty of people around the world doing bad things, says Atlas, now it's time to find people who want to go out there and help people for one thing in return: pay it forward.
(Sgt. Brandon Little serves with Task Force XII Public Affairs Office, Multi National Division-Baghdad)