WASHINGTON — "Joe the Plumber" was only one of two Americans injected into the presidential election this past week. The other was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, whom former Secretary of State Colin Powell invoked in his endorsement Sunday of Barack Obama.
Khan was a 20-year-old soldier from Manahawkin, N.J., who wanted to enlist in the Army from the time he was 10. He was an all-American boy who visited Disney World after he completed his training at Fort Benning, Ga., and made his comrades in Iraq watch "Saving Private Ryan" every week.
He was also a Muslim who joined the military, his father said, in part to show his countrymen that not all Muslims are terrorists.
"He was an American soldier first," said his father, Feroze Khan. "But he also looked at fighting in this war as fighting for his faith. He was fighting radicalism."
Khan was killed by an improvised explosive device in August 2007 along with four other soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter while searching a house in Baqouba, Iraq. He's one of four Muslims who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where 512 troops from those wars now rest.
About 3,700 of the U.S. military's 1.4 million troops are Muslims, according to Defense Department estimates.
Khan, a child of immigrant parents from Trinidad, was 14 when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Feroze Khan said he remembered his son watching in stunned silence: "I could tell that inside a lot of things were going through his head."
Three years later, Feroze honored his son's request and allowed him to enlist him in the Army. "I told him: 'You are going to the Army.' I never said there is a war going on in a Muslim country. I didn't want him to get any ideas that he was fighting (against) his religion."
Feroze kept his fears for his son's safety to himself.
His son was assigned to the Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Wash., deployed to Iraq in 2006 and fought on Baghdad's Haifa Street, a Sunni insurgent stronghold.
His tour was extended as part of the surge of additional U.S. forces to Iraq, and he called or messaged home often until he was deployed to restive Diyala province, where he was under fire too often to contact home regularly.
But he prayed every day, his father said.
One Sunday morning, his son sent an instant message: "Hey Dad. Are you there?" Feroze Khan was out, and he saw the message when he returned.
A few hours later, his ex-wife called. Soldiers had knocked on her door in Maryland. Their only child was dead.
A few minutes later, soldiers appeared at Khan's door. "I guess it helped that I knew beforehand," he said. "There are no words to describe it."
Kareem Khan was a month from finishing his tour when he was killed.
On Sunday, Powell said that Khan's sacrifice and service had swayed him to discuss the way that Muslims have been portrayed in the presidential campaign, and the contention that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Obama "is a Christian," Powell said. "He has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That is not America." He added: "I am troubled that within the (Republican) Party we have these kinds of expressions" suggesting that Obama is a Muslim, and that if he is, he likely associates with terrorists.
Powell said that he felt strongly about the issue after he saw a photo of Khan's tombstone in the New Yorker magazine. In the black-and-white picture, Khan's mother is resting her head on her son's tombstone. On each side of the stone are flowers, and in between is a copy of the Quran. On the face of the tombstone is a crescent and star, indicating that the soldier buried there is a Muslim.
"He was an American," Powell said.
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