FORT KNOX, Ky. – Every member of the U.S. Army has a reason for why they initially decided to serve. For some, it’s a history of family service. For others, it may be a desire to be part of a team or simply part of something larger than themselves. Some join for the college money and some simply seek adventure and perhaps an opportunity to make their lives better.
For 21-year-old Manal Munawar, that service would be the catalyst for a desire to help others and would be the first step in a lifelong journey that began almost two decades ago and nearly 8,000 miles away in South Asia.
Manal Munawar was born in Karachi, Pakistan on October 19, 2001, to Saima Munawar (mother) and Mohammad Munawar Khan (father). Growing up with two older brothers, Hamza Khan and Mohammad Osama Khan, Manal explains how the decision to leave everything they had known was not made easily – or quickly.
“My grandparents lived in the U.S. for quite some time and wanted my family to move to the U.S. and live with them,” said Munawar. “However, my father had mixed feelings about moving to the U.S. because he was at the peak of his career in Pakistan. He had obtained his Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and operated his own clinics where he was widely known for helping the people in our community,” she added.
Additionally, her father served as a police officer and worked with a lot of celebrities in Pakistan, frequently appearing on TV, Munawar added.
Deliberating over the love of his home country and a successful career versus the possibilities and opportunities that existed for the family by moving to the U.S., he faced a hard decision.
“My father did not want to leave his career behind, nor his family,” she said. “Ultimately, the decision was made so my siblings and I could have a better future.”
The family started the process of applying for their immigration to the U.S., a process that would end up taking more than 10 years to finally get approved.
“When we arrived to the U.S. in 2014, we stayed with our grandparents in a small house in Kennesaw, Georgia,” Munawar said.
While the family was able to successfully complete the lengthy and time-consuming legal requirements to successfully emigrate to the U.S., Manal and her brothers would soon face a challenge that none of them would have anticipated.
“When we came to the U.S., initially, we didn’t like it. It was a culture shock and difficult for us to adjust because we couldn’t speak English and communicate with others as well as we wanted,” Munawar explained. “My brothers and I were ready to go back to Pakistan. We missed our friends and cousins every day.”
Manal’s parents patiently explained to their family that they could visit Pakistan whenever they wanted.
“After numerous conversations with our parents, my brothers and I decided to give it a chance. It turned out better than we could have imagined,” she added.
As Munawar started the 6th grade in the U.S., she continued to struggle with the communication barrier.
“In Karachi, I was always the top student of my class; but when I transitioned to American education my grades fell due to English comprehension and difficulty understanding my teachers and the assignments,” she explained.
Not to be defeated, she “doubled down” and persevered by working even harder.
“By 8th grade, my English had improved, and I was excelling in school and was always a straight “A” student. When I graduated in the Class of 2020 from Allatoona High School in Acworth, Georgia, I graduated with Honors,” she said proudly.
“To this day, I continue to maintain an “A” in all my college classes with a 4.0 GPA,” she added.
Never one to embrace complacency, Munawar began looking toward her future and how she might be able to give back to those who had given her family so much.
“My decision to join the U.S. Army came during my senior year. It was never my intent to join the military, however, after speaking with a recruiter and hearing all the great benefits that the U.S. Army had to offer, I gained interest,” Munawar explained.
“I spoke with the Army recruiter about wanting a career in the medical field to follow in my father’s footsteps,” she added.
“When the recruiter presented me with all the medical specialties, my interest grew even further; so, I decided to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to see what specialties I may be qualified for.”
After receiving her ASVAB scores, her results were high enough to qualify her for numerous military occupational specialties – including those she had set her sights on in the medical field. Encouraged, she decided to move forward with the process, encountering another small hurdle that would need to be overcome.
“I couldn’t sign the contract because I was 17 years old and needed parental consent, which I knew that my parents would not approve,” Munawar explained.
“When I turned 18, I signed the contract and told my parents afterward,” she added sheepishly. “They were upset with the decision that I made; but after talking to them and assuring them that I was doing it for my education and career, they finally accepted.”
In 2020, after officially enlisting in the U.S. Army, Munawar attended Basic Combat Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma followed by Advanced Individual Training at the Naval Ophthalmic Support and Training Activity in Yorktown, Virginia. It was here where she received her MOS identifier as a 68H, optical laboratory specialist, graduating with honors and, as a testimony to her work ethic developed over the years, receiving her first Army Achievement Medal for being the top student.
As Munawar explains, her first test in real-world problem solving in her new career field came shortly after arriving at her first unit.
“After AIT, I was assigned to the 384th Medical Logistics Company at Fort Gillem, Georgia. At the time, I was the only 68H and was informed to prepare for annual training at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. My task was to set up my equipment so I could make glasses, however, that didn’t go as planned,” explained Munawar.
“I encountered equipment issues due to the equipment not being used or serviced in the past eight years. With failure not being an option, I coordinated with the biomedical equipment technicians to repair the equipment and was able to be up and ready to set up my lab and started making glasses,” she added.
It was also here where she would be recognized again for the perseverance and determination to succeed that has come to typify her journey thus far.
“The 429th Multifunctional Medical Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Odunayo Babajide, presented me with a coin for fabricating glasses in the field after eight years of non-mission capable equipment,” said Munawar.
She also credits this precise moment for when she “fell in love with optometry and giving people the gift of sight.”
Munawar has decided to pursue her career in optometry, recently receiving her American Board of Optometry certification and enrolling in college in the Fall of 2021 to pursue an associate degree in optometry.
“Currently, I am deployed to the Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar with the 384th MLC, serving as the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center – Southwest Asia’s optical fabrication noncommissioned officer in charge, helping patients across the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility,” explained Munawar.
Munawar credits the U.S. Army for allowing Soldiers to achieve their potential by providing the training and placing them in opportunities to excel.
“Never would I have thought that I would be given this much responsibility and that my leaders would trust me to take care of Soldiers all across the theater,” Munawar added.
Judging by the selfless service and individual success that seemingly runs throughout her family, credit could also be given to Munawar’s parents for instilling those values and for taking a chance almost a decade ago to provide opportunities for Manal and her brothers to thrive.
“As of today, I am currently serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, my middle brother Mohammed is commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, and my oldest brother Hamza is serving the public as a deputy sheriff for Cobb County, Georgia,” said Munawar.
“I am beyond grateful for the U.S. Army.”
Manal Munawar, an optical laboratory specialist assigned to the 384th Medical Logistics Company at Fort Gillem, Georgia, is one of thousands of women service members who are recognized during Women’s History Month, which is observed each March.
Today, women make up 19% of the Total Army, 35% of the Army’s civilian workforce, with more than 174,000 women serving in the total force. They are represented in every career field in the Army and continue to be critical members of the Army team.