KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Faith is an important aspect to everyone's religion. Practicing beliefs can be difficult for Soldiers deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
While deployed, Soldiers often find it hard to practice their faith for many reasons: work schedule, religious services availability or just needing to make it more of a priority.
At Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Muslim Soldiers have a chance to observe the holy month of Ramadan at the Kandahar Islamic Center. Accommodating Soldiers' religious needs is important to maintaining support for the diversity of religions in Combined Task Force Dragoon.
"As we all know the Army represents the spectrum of society at large. We have people from all different faith groups, different backgrounds and cultures," said Maj. Robert Allman, CTF Dragoon and chaplain. "Considering that we have people from different backgrounds and faith groups it is logical that we would have Soldiers from the Islamic tradition."
Soldier diversity is important to the U.S. Army. Combined Task Force Dragoon is just as diverse when it comes to religion. Muslims are a minority within both, and the opportunity to practice Islam and observe Ramadan, with other Muslims at the center, allows Soldiers and civilians a chance for fellowship and camaraderie.
According to the Islamic Society of North America, Ramadan is an annual religious observance in the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, is part of the five pillars of Islam and is practiced by fasting during daylight hours. The month is determined by the visual sightings of the crescent moon.
Additionally, during daylight hours, Muslims must abstain from smoking, drinking and doing anything in excess or sinful in nature.
The Islamic center was built by a previous unit at Kandahar Airfield, converted from an old tea house building, and has been in operation for a few years.
"When I first reverted to Islam, I searched all over (Iraq) where we were allowed to pray as Muslims," said Sgt. Richard Blevins, a unit supply specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 115th Military Police Battalion. "The problem was, we weren't allowed to set foot in any mosques. So that first year in Iraq was a very lonely year for me."
Muslims refer to converting to Islam as "reverting". They believe that everyone is born Muslim and if they are raised in another faith and return to Islam then they have "reverted".
The mosques were off limits for security reasons when Blevins reverted to Islam.
Blevins is a Maryland National Guard Soldier who reverted to Islam on his first combat tour to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007. The proud parent of three children, Blevins has been married for 14 years and has been happy with what the center has to offer.
"The first time I have been able to have a place to worship is here (at the center). From the moment I set my foot through these doors, until now, this has been the most open, welcoming tolerant community," said Blevins.
The center offers prayer times and religious support, and held iftars -- a breaking of the fast dinner, every night during Ramadan. The center provides this support to all Muslims on the base, both civilian and military.
"I was walking on cloud nine when I first came in to the center. I was convinced, like Iraq, this was going to a very lonely time for me. There are not really words to describe it," said Blevins.
Blevins was raised in the Christian faith and his father is a Christian minister. Both his father and wife have accepted him as a Muslim. His relationship with his father has remained as it was before and his wife, who has remained a practicing Christian, had natural worries about his reversion to Islam, but has fully accepted and respects her husband's new faith.
New Muslim Soldiers
Newly deployed Muslim Soldiers with CTF Dragoon have also found the Islamic Center and have taken part in Ramadan, and are eager to attend prayer and meet new friends during their time in Kandahar.
"When I found out about (the Islamic center) I didn't really believe it because people always say there is a place and it always ends up being a non-denominational church," said Sgt. Marcus Lewis, a power generation equipment repairer with HHT, Regimental Support Squadron, CTF Dragoon. "When I found out it was an Islamic center I got really excited."
Lewis, like Blevins, reverted to Islam when he was 21 and typically observes Ramadan alone. He doesn't know any other Muslims to pray with and was unaware of the Islamic center.
Once people find out he is a Muslim, Lewis enjoys explaining his religion.
"I guess it's natural sometimes for people to be apprehensive. Some people don't understand our religion. I am pretty much accepted wherever I go," said Lewis. "I like to educate people. People often ask me the difference between Christians and (Muslims) and they are surprised to find out it isn't as different as they think."
Private Munir Muhammed, a motor transport operator with Troop A, RSS, was just as excited to find out about the center.
"I was not aware that there was a Muslim center on Kandahar. It feels good to have the faith of Islam recognized by the Army by having this center. It will bring some of the Soldiers together so they don't feel alone," said Muhammed.
Muhammed has been a Muslim his entire life and joined the Army in Oct. 2012.
"Joining the Army is really different because there are a lot of Christians and it's hard to practice the faith," he expressed. "I haven't (had) a chance to make my way over there, but I'm excited to see what it's like, hopefully it's a good service and I get to meet some fellow Muslim Americans."
Muhammed joined his fellow Muslims for an iftar at the Islamic Center during Ramadan later that week.
Resiliency is a key part of Dragoon Total Fitness, and it's one of the five philosophies of the regiment and the U.S. Army's Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness. Religion is a part of the unit's Master Resiliency Training program.
The ability to practice all religions is a part of DTF and the CSF2. It encourages spirituality as social and spiritual activities, allowing Soldiers to better deal with the stresses of their daily lives. .
According to CSF2, a Soldier's spirituality draws upon personal, philosophical, psychological, or religious teachings, and forms the basis of their character.
Accommodating a person's faith structure is important to the Regiment.
"One thing we do as chaplains, regardless of somebody's faith, is we care for them; we treat them the way we want to be treated ourselves," said Allman. "We see every person as a human. We care for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs."
The CTF Dragoon supports the observance of religious services and affords the chance for Soldiers to seek out their own religion, and for them to be more resilient and continue the unit's mission of mutual respect within its ranks.
All Soldiers have the ability to practice their faith on their own. Having other people around who share the same beliefs and values are an important part of faith and having a place to practice that faith is just as important. The Islamic Center and other places of worship bring people together to share a common belief and represent a strong foundation and stability to its members.