What is it like to be a Muslim American in the Army? For Mona, she decided to keep her religious preference to herself to protect her children and shield herself from discrimination. The discrimination she had experienced so many years of her life growing up as an immigrant and Muslim in America.
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Mona served 20 years in the US Army Nurse Corps. Initially, she was a staff nurse working rotating shifts. However, this wreaked havoc with my childcare scheduling. A year into service I learned of the Nurse Practitioner (NP) program the army had started with the promise of working clinic hours (M-F 0730 -1630) upon completion. A practical solution for her as it fits perfectly with daycare hours for her little girls (ages 2 & 4). She loved her choice and remained a women's health care NP and women's advocate for most of her career.
Mona and I connected through her new book, Not Created Equal. Her book shares her experience of growing up, being in an abusive marriage, and joining the Army after her divorce. It was a unique and interesting and unique perspective of growing up as a Muslim immigrant in America during the 1970s.
In our interview, we focused on her military experience. How she came to join the Army after initially applying for the Air Force and getting no response. The struggle of being a single mom with unreliable childcare for her crazy shifts. She also talks about becoming one of the first Nurse Practitioners to get the opportunity to work a normal schedule. We also covered her time in Germany where she met her second husband, traveled all over Europe including some of the Eastern block countries before the Berlin Wall fell. She also talked about the inner conflict she felt during the first Gulf War (Desert Storm). Being an American, but also having her culture from Egypt.
She ended her career in Virginia and was able to stay in Virginia by both her and her husband going to Korea in back to back years. But the stability it gave her daughters who were now in middle school and high school was worth the sacrifice.
She decided to write her memoir for her girls, but she also was encouraged by friends. She also wrote a letter and told her story to President Barrack Obama and he encouraged her to write her story as well. It is an interesting and unique perspective. Get your copy of Not Created Equal today!
Connect with Mona:
Serving During Desert Storm – Episode 57
Graduate Debt Free from College with an ROTC scholarship – Episode 89
Women’s Health Practitioner in the Military – Episode 25
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Amanda Huffman 00:00
Welcome to Episode 98 of the Woman on the Military Podcast. This week my guest is Mona Johnson. Mona and I connected when I learned about her book about being a Muslim American and serving in the US Army. She was an immigrant from Egypt to America and talked about the challenges that she and her family faced. She was in an abusive relationship with her ex-husband. And when she was finally able to get out of that relationship, she decided to join the army as a nurse as a way to start her life over again, she faced many challenges in the military, being a single mother and being a Muslim American. I really enjoyed reading her book not created equal and found it really insightful to someone who didn't know a lot about the Muslim culture and how Muslims have been treated. This is another great episode. So let's get started. You're listening to the Women of the Military Podcast where we share the stories of female servicemembers and how the military touch their lives. I'm Amanda Huffman, I'm an Air Force veteran, author of women of the military, and a collaborative author of Brave Women, Strong Faith. I am also a military spouse and Mom. I created Women of the Military Podcast as a place to share stories of military women past and present with the goal of finding the heart of the story while uncovering the triumphs and challenges women face while serving in the military. If you want to be encouraged by the stories of military women and be inspired to change the world, keep tuned for this latest episode of Women of the Military. I am excited to have you here for the podcast and talk about your story and your book. Hi, Amanda, thank you for inviting me. Let's first start with why did you decide to join the military?
Mona Johnson 01:59
Why did I decide to join the military? Well, in my book, I explained how I was an immigrant. I came to United States with my family, my parents, and my brothers in 1960. I know that sounds like an awfully long time ago, it was but I came from Egypt and grew up as a Muslim American. And at that time, people in this country didn't even know what Muslims were or who they were. So it was a very early time for us for our heritage to be here. But over the years, I've assimilated our family changed our name to Johnson so we can be more Americanized. My father became an instructor for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. And there he learned what military life was like because he taught to officers and soldiers of the Army, Air Force all the military, the language and the culture. Meanwhile, I went to college and got my degree in nursing. And I got married. Initially in college, I wanted to be an Air Force nurse. I wanted to be a pilot initially. My I have an uncle who was a pilot, and his plane unfortunately crashed. When we came to the United States, they all perished. But in his memory, I wanted to be a pilot like him. But that wasn't open to me back in the 70s when I was in college. So I became a nurse because friends of mine were going into nursing, I had no idea what nursing was, and then a couple friends, we're going to be enforced nurses. So I thought, Oh, I'd love to do that, then I can be a pilot too. Well, it didn't happen that way of my parents were very traditional in our religious beliefs. And my mother had somehow arranged for me to meet someone who was Muslim for me to marry and with their blessings, I got married. And to make a long story short, it was a very abusive marriage. And my husband was Muslim, and he was from Egypt also. But he was close minded. He wasn't as open minded as my parents in many ways, but it was abusive. And so I seeked a divorce. And I obtained one after seven years. And since my father worked for the Defense Language Institute, he recommended Well, why don't you go ahead and start go to the Air Force and see what it's like you'd go in as an officer as a commissioned officer, because I already had my degree. So I tried Air Force, unfortunately, wasn't responding as quickly as I wanted to go in. So the army recruited me and it was right after my divorce, I decided I needed a new start. And I was still young enough. I was 29. But I had two children. I had a two year old and a four year old when I went in, and I thought, well, this will be an adventure and I'm going to make a shot of it. And that's how I went in with my parents blessings.
Amanda Huffman 05:00
And I read your book. So I actually know everything that you said. And the book goes into a lot more detail. And one of the things that the book talks a lot about was the discrimination that you felt growing up. Yes. When you move, can you talk about how that affected you growing up, and then like some of the choices you made when you were on active duty?
Mona Johnson 05:22
How that affected me growing up? Well, as I mentioned, we changed our name to Johnson. And it was not a pretty picture back in the 60s and 70s. Like I said, people just did not know what Muslims were or who they were. Yet, they had plenty of epitaphs for us, in a manner of trying to blend in and be more Americanized, we changed our name went to a different neighborhood, different schools to try and assimilate however we are my parents had a very strong accent. And it didn't take long for them to know where we were from. And it still continued, but we had to learn to roll with the punches, you know, so to speak, also remembered all those years, when I went into the army, you know, how you you get you in process, and then they you do all the paperwork, and in the basic training, you know, all of that stuff. No one knew, of course, about my religion in the army. I kept it that way. So when we processed our paperwork, again, our dog tags, I indicated no religious preference, I did not want to say Muslim, and that was twofold. One is I did not want any more discrimination, I've had enough of it within the army. And also, if, by any chance we ever came in contact with a Muslim entity, or Islamic entity, one way or another, I did not want to be identified as a Muslim in the US Armed Forces, because I would be used as an example, and not such a good way. And having two children, I had to be very cognizant of that. So I just wrote no religious preference and left it at that. And I just never really, I never told anybody except my second husband, who I met nine years later in the Army.
Amanda Huffman 07:11
And I thought when I was reading that I never really thought that much when I did my dog tag, I actually put Protestant but I didn't ever like think about that. And how even when the captain I think it was a captain who asked you he was like Jewish, Christian, Protestant, and you were like, uh, but I don't fit into any of those. And I felt like he had never been in that situation. He was like, No, you just pick one. And then he gave you the other option?
Yeah, well, actually, I had to think about I had to go go home and call my dad and say, you know, his that just jumped up at me and caught me by surprise. It was a sergeant that processed us and he said, is it Jewish, Catholic or Protestant? Which is it, which is a captain? I was a captain, I received a direct commission. So I had to think about that my father suggested just, you know, tell them your spiritual, tell them you don't belong. yada, yada. So he told me what the sergeant when I went back to him told me Well, how about NRP? And I said, What's NRP? And he said, no religious preference. I said, Yeah, I'll take it. And so I left it at that, and just never disclosed it in the Army.
Amanda Huffman 08:21
Yeah, I found that really interesting, because it was something that I never really had thought about. But of course, it's something that was really important to you, but also you needed to protect yourself and your and your children. So let's talk a little bit about your kids because your kids were... How old were theywhen you join the Army? They were two and four toddlers? Yeah. And when you went on active duty first, you had to go to your like 12 week officer training. Did your parents watch them?
Mona Johnson 08:47
Yes, I took them to my parents. It was a basic training was six weeks. And so I took them to my parents, and they kept them for me. And after I completed basic training, I went to my first assignment, which was Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Washington, DC. As soon as I got settled, I brought them to join me.
Amanda Huffman 09:07
And let's talk about because when you were working at the hospital, you were working like swing shift and night shift and day shift, and you're a single mom, and I know that you had issues with childcare every once in a while. So talk about what you did when you work night shift and your childcare fell through and how difficult that was.
Mona Johnson 09:26
Of course, in the Army, it's very important to have a family care plan and you do that and in basic training, and then annually, you update it. And I did have a family care plan and I had childcare plans also for for childcare providers. But the policy at Walter Reed was a rotating shifts and we had to choose two out of three shifts every six weeks and weekends every other weekend and holidays. I didn't see my career come to fruition with a schedule like that, and I chose night shift and day shift, and then before I knew it, we had shortages, then we had to fill in on the third shift. So even though I had the best plans for my childcare, they just wouldn't show up, or wouldn't answer my calls. I mean, it was very unreliable. Nobody wanted to work those shifts. Nobody wanted to babysit on weekends. So I had a tough time, I had to take my girls into work with me several times, and just put them in the nurse's station lounge and make a little bit for them and where they would sleep or play or whatever. Anyway, this lasted a few months, I was written up for that. So What was I supposed to do? After about, I guess, 910 months before a year was up, I learned about the Army's new program called nurse practitioner. Of course now we all know what nurse practitioners are. But back in the early 80s, that was a new phenomenon. And as the military is very, especially the army is very forefront on the forefront of new advances in practice practices. There were it was new in the country too. And so I was one of the first nurse practitioners in this country and interested me primarily because I was told that upon graduation completion of this program, that I would be guaranteed clinic hours Monday through Friday 730 to 430. And no weekend's no holidays. And I said, Oh, yes, I'll sign up. Where do I sign up for this? So I did, I joined that class, I was accepted for that class, I should say, I applied and it was a six month program. Very, very condensed. And again, I took my girls to my parents for that. And that was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and I took the course and yes, I became a nurse practitioner and it was purely out of necessity. You know, the saying, invention is the necessity is the mother. What is it necessity is a mother of invention or something like that. And but I learned to love it. And later a few years later, I went to graduate school and obtain my master's degree in women's health care and continue to be a nurse practitioner.
Amanda Huffman 12:24
Yeah. And you ended up going to Alabama right after you became a nurse practitioner.
Mona Johnson 12:30
Yes, Fort McClellan, Alabama. That was my most favorite assignment.
Amanda Huffman 12:34
Yeah, but before you got there you were a little worried because it was Alabama's the south and but you ended up finding a great community and you really love being there.
Mona Johnson 12:44
This Yes. Now granted, they didn't know my heritage. I mean, you know, but and they didn't need to, and I wanted to protect my daughters again. But it was wonderful southern hospitality in the I just fit in my girls just fit in. And it was just my religion was never discussed or brought up or questioned or anything. And it was funny, because not funny, but I guess it's strange. Because it was the south and I had preconceived notions about it. But it was it was fine for us. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the staff, the work the patients, the neighborhood.
Amanda Huffman 13:22
Yeah. And then the next assignment, you came up to DC and that was to get closer to your parents.
Mona Johnson 13:28
Yeah, I wanted to my brothers were all in California at the time. That's where I grew up, by the way. And my parents were in Virginia, my father had transferred to Fort Lee Virginia to work there. As a civilian with the army. I transferred. I wanted Fort Belvoir, which would have been closer, but I the closest I could get was Fort Meade, Maryland. And so I went there with the intention of being a support person for my parents, because I had to balance now my military life and my children and then the care of my father with alone, you know, with my mother. So yeah, it was quite a balancing act. And from there, I went to graduate school. Yeah. And then let's get into you get to go overseas to Germany. And I remember after graduate school, yes. went to Germany. It was another wonderful, wonderful experience, actually met my second husband there and it was quite serendipitous session, say, we've been in process together. He had just graduated from his anesthesia program, and I just graduated from my nurse practitioner master's program. And we met in processing in our commander's office when he had us all in the office. And we ended up being neighbors again, serendipitously, it was best thing that ever happened. He put it opposite. between my two husbands is like the one was like the devil. The other was like the angel.
Amanda Huffman 15:01
Yeah. And he, like took to your girls and you guys got to spend time traveling sometimes just you and him and then sometimes all as a family. Yeah, yeah, I really enjoyed reading that part of the book and like
Mona Johnson 15:13
over all over Europe. Yeah, it was it was a wonderful tour. Now granted, it was, before the Berlin Wall came down, or right, during the Berlin Wall, I should say, I joined the army in 81, and the end of 81. And we our tour in Germany was from 89 to 92, and January of 89. And then in November of 89, of course, the the wall came down, we were actually there. My god, I have pictures of my daughters with x picks at the wall. But it was a completely different experience back then, than it is now, of course, you know, the world, of course, is changing in 30 years, drastically, when we went to the Eastern Bloc countries that that was, it was very sad. It was like you're stepping back in the 1950s 1950s 1960s. They were there just like I guess, communist Cuba. They were it was it was very, very sad that people Yeah, everybody had a job. But it was everybody was poor, too. You know, and it was an eye opener. The difference between the East and the West, the Eastern Bloc countries in the West.
Amanda Huffman 16:31
Yeah, I forgot about that. Because you went to East Berlin, and you talked about that in detail in the book. And it was really interesting.
Mona Johnson 16:39
And Czechoslovakia. Yeah. And then we also went to a lot of Western countries, of course, we went to Belgium and to Holland and to Paris and Switzerland, where I had an aunt, my mother's sister, it was quite, it was an opportunity for us to travel. We even took a Mac flight to Turkey, in a sea nine, Military Airlift command flight. And that was an adventure in itself, you know, and because it was a different era, the girls even got to steers, so to speak, quote, unquote, the plane, which is unheard of No, you know, but it was it was an adventure for them as well and a learning experience. And I actually put my daughters in German schools, I opted for that intentionally. Because when I came to America, I didn't know English. English is my fourth language. And I knew at those ages at the time, they were about nine and 11, I believe. And I knew they would pick up German in a in a flash. And they did the spoke is so well that they didn't want me to speak German with them. And I spoke German at home and I knew German and I tutor them initially, but after a few months, they spoke so well. They didn't want me to speak German to them in front of their friends, because it wasn't. So it was cute.
Amanda Huffman 18:02
Yeah, that's kind of funny. Yeah. I think it was interesting that they got such a different unique experience. But it was very similar in a way to yours because you got to immersed in English by going to school. So it's cool that they got to learn German that way. I just have such a great experience and see so much of the world at such a young age. So after Germany, you guys moved back to Virginia, right?
Mona Johnson 18:28
After Germany. My husband, my current new husband and I we got married in Denmark. We went to Denmark. That's another country went to in Sweden. But yes, we married in 1990. And our next assignment was Fort Belvoir, Virginia. And we were both station there for a few years. My husband was deployed to Somalia. And after that, you know, then he retired before I did we each spend a tour in Korea to I have to think of things kind of magically, yes. And so in order for us to stay at Fort Belvoir for the length of time that we were able to and keep the girls in school because they were now middle school and high school we chose to spend on a company tours in Korea. So each of us spent a year on a company at separate times. He went from 95 to 96. And I went but 99 to 2000. They were able to complete middle school high school and be a little more stable because being in an army child or Air Force, military child is not easy either, you know, golf gone from school to school. And as you as you get older, it gets harder to adapt. So that was what we did to survive having the family together.
Amanda Huffman 19:47
Yeah. And being dual military. It's not always easy to get stationed together and and you said you guys did a year in Korea and then you you followed him and did another year in Korea. So that was like two Two years of being separated, but being able to be there for your daughters. And I realized I skipped over the Gulf War. And I know that you didn't deploy. But I know that when you were in Germany, you guys ramped up. So can you talk a little bit about what happened with the Gulf War, and then how that affected you personally?
Mona Johnson 20:19
Yeah, the Gulf War, the first Gulf War, we were in Germany, we had to gear up our hospital, our hospital was 500 beds capacity, and we had to double the capacity quickly. And so we were not deployed, we were designated as a personnel that would cover that hospital. And so when that happened, it was like, my worst nightmare come true. I thought, Oh, my God, you know, my heritage. I know, I'm not Iraqi, I'm Egyptian, but Muslims kind of feel a brotherhood or sisterhood, just like Christians do, and Jewish people. And you know, every group, it's the tribe feeling. And I felt Oh, my God, you know, here, I'm part of this. And it was a true split of my identity, how can I support this and yet still be loyal to my military. And of course, this was my new home, America. And of course, I would be loyal to my country. But I, it was a very difficult thing for me to even be comfortable with that. And I couldn't share that with anybody, except for my husband at the time, you know, and he didn't even understand my husband, and my second husband is Catholic, and we get along beautifully. It's been 30 years now. But he couldn't understand it. And you really can't unless you're in that situation, my heritage is always my heritage, even though my name is Johnson. And even though I speak like everyone else in this country, you know, it's in I was a minority then. And it wasn't, it wasn't viewed as a positive thing. It still isn't in this country, but at least they have more more people here in order to bond with, you know, and assimilate with the Muslims and the Arabs, and what have you, whatever group you are in is more.
Amanda Huffman 22:12
Yeah, I think you wrote it really well, in the book, just to, you didn't really put it into words, but I could feel the emotional tension. And so it's very similar to the way that you express it now where it's like, because I can't understand it because I'm I grew up in America, was born in America, but and I also was really little. So I don't remember the first Gulf War. But I could see how that would just cause a lot of tension and just be a difficult thing, especially at the time when you guys were really ramping up to prepare to receive war casualties. And the added stressor...
The saving grace, I should say is that it was so short, and it was over with before really having any casualties. Most of the well, we have we got a few but they were they weren't combat casualties. You know, they were accidents or, or whatever illnesses. But it was a blessing. It really was not just for me, but for all of us. But inside I thought, Oh, thank God. In Arabic, we say Alhamdulillah, which means Thanks be to God.
Amanda Huffman 23:19
Yeah, and I love how when I was reading the book, you added those Arabic phrases throughout the book. And I just, I really loved how you tied your American culture with your Egyptian culture together in such a way I deployed to Afghanistan. So I know a little bit of dari, which is similar to Arabic. And, I just found it fascinating. And I loved how you added that part into your book.
Mona Johnson 23:44
Yeah, thank you. Yeah. And, you know, I also added several words in Arabic that were like foods, for example, and the beginning, you know, and then words that my first husband used on me, and, or to me, whichever, and I also tied in the culture of his family is, and it's really I just really want to emphasize that in my book, the message I want to bring out is that no matter what culture you're from, no matter what religion, no matter what country, no matter what race, whatever you can assume about somebody just because they're the same color as you or the same culture as you are the same religion as you or what have you. You just can't and I realized that my mother's intentions were good. I mean, they weren't. And they weren't outrageous, but that just she wanted me to marry a Muslim because that's just the way it was. But he was far from the man that my father was, even though they are both Muslim they were both Egyptian nothing is completely different culture within a culture so to speak. And that was the mistake that we made is we assumed, you know, that be like us, but it was not his family culture was the dynamics where everything from spousal abuse to child abuse with this father's other children and, and female circumcision and oh, what have you. It was just it was ghastly when I learned all that.
Amanda Huffman 25:28
Yeah. And when you filed for divorce, I remember you talking about how he was like, outraged or mystified. I guess that women had rights in America. And he just didn't understand how like the law was in your favor. It was just really interesting how, how different he viewed women in the way that especially how your dad raised you because the main reason you guys left Saudi Arabia was because you couldn't get your education after third grade.
Mona Johnson 25:57
Right, right. Yeah. And that was in Saudi Arabia. We lived there for two years after leaving Egypt, in Saudi Arabia was not Saudi Arabia today, of course, it was pre-oil. And girls did not get an education period. The only girls that did up to third grade were the princesses, family of the royal family. And my father was somehow connected with a friend of yours at the ear of the prince. And he gave permission that I attend that school. But even that was only went to third grade. Since then, of course, there are very educated women in Saudi Arabia. And of course, it's a land of wealth. And this is a different world. Yeah. When we were there, it was not like that. Hurry.
Amanda Huffman 26:42
Yeah, life, life changes as time goes on.
As you know, from last year, especially. But yeah,
Amanda Huffman 26:50
This has been a crazy year. I guess the only other question I wanted to ask you, before I get to my like, final question that I ask everybody. But why did you decide to write your story in your in a memoir? Why did you decide to do that?
Why did I decide to write my memoir and the story? Initially, I wanted to write it because I felt that my family story is part of America story. My story is part of America story. I wanted to leave something behind for my children, for my daughters, so that they would, you know, have something that would remind them of how they got here. And I was especially motivated after the 2016 election. Of course, we all know how that turned out. But and I say this at the end of my book, in the epilogue, how I wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, about how people from where I come from, and other immigrants and other minorities are being labeled, and very disrespectful ways. And I thought, My God, you know, I, I served in the Army, and I'm American, and yada, yada, no, and I thought This can't be. So I had to document our story. And I received a letter back from President Barack Obama, by the way, too, because I shared my story with him. But initially, you know, I learned the principles of being a good American from the president, John F. Kennedy. That's how I learned English at the time when he was elected. And that was, my lesson of how to be an American. And all the years that I've grown up is how my family raised us. And now, I wanted to leave a history and a legacy for people for my country and my back of the woods, so to speak, or neck of the woods, because it's not documented very much, and especially not a military officer from that heritage. So initially, it was for my children. And then people would tell me why, what an interesting story you should write about it. And even President Obama encouraged me. And so I did.
Amanda Huffman 29:13
I guess when the President gives you encouragement it gives you a lot of push to go and get that book done. And I found it really interesting. And I'm really glad that you wrote your story. And you shared your experience because it touches on so many different aspects that I think I'll tell you, I'm sheltered and I don't see a lot of the stuff that goes on that hurts people in America. And so it was really interesting to read. And it was really a good way for me to learn more about the different cultures in America and the different people and to hear their, their voice and their story. So and I always like to end my interview with what advice would you give to young women considering joining the military, so what would you say?
Oh, gosh, I would say first and foremost, do it when you're young and single, definitely before you have children, man, I can't overemphasize that. I did not have a choice at the time. But that would be the best time to try it out. And if you feel that that's for you, then you know, I'll be you know, I'll be very honest, it's a very fulfilling career. But it's also important that you seek out a mentor, because a lot of girls would want to join right out of high school going in, right, a high school, of course, you will become enlisted. And this is a very young age. And so it's very important for you to seek a mentor, someone that can show you the ropes, answer some questions for you questions you don't even know to ask, you know, help you with potential issues that could come up. But most of all, follow your dream. If by any chance you go to college first. And then you go in, you get a direct commission course that would be better. Because for me, I don't know, if I could have survived as an enlisted person, to be honest, it would have been much rougher, and it was rough as a junior officer. So you have to be prepared to be flexible, and sacrifice. If at all possible. You can go out of college after college it was I would recommend that but if not, and a lot of people get their college education through the military or as you know, after afterward, but it's extremely satisfying career. If you find that you're flexible enough for it, and you're able to to roll with the punches, so to speak. It's no picnic, though. It's definitely no picnic. And then a couple of children and being a single parents, it was a time tearaway the experiences a lot of positive experiences a lot not so positive. And a lot of challenges, which also helped me grow. I'm guarantee it'll help anyone grow. It comes in.
Amanda Huffman 32:02
Yeah. And I have a guide on my website, a Girl's Guide to the Military, if you're thinking about joining the military and you and like she said, if you have questions, or maybe you don't know what questions to ask, you can check that out. And it'll give you a head start and joining the military. And thank you so much for being on the podcast. Thank you for your writing your book. I'll have links to it in the show notes so that people can order it if they want to get it. I thought it was a great book. I really enjoyed it. I got it last Saturday, and I already finished it on Sunday. I finished it in less than a week. I just and it was really short chapters. So I could just pick it up here and there. And I really enjoyed reading it. So thank you so much.
Mona Johnson 32:44
Thank you so much for your time.
Amanda Huffman 32:51
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