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Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad was the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. armed forces

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps Military Voices Initiative, recording and sharing the stories of service members and their families. In the early 1990s, Lt. Col. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad became the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces. He came to StoryCorps with his wife, Saleemah Muhammad, to talk about what that was like.

ABDUL-RASHEED MUHAMMAD: We didn't have any Islamic chaplains in the military, and so I really didn't have a template. In the early days, I certainly anticipated that I probably was going to have challenges. But I got a whole lot of people reaching out to me and saying, hey, if you need anything. And these were senior chaplains. So that was a pleasant surprise.

SALEEMAH MUHAMMAD: What has been the most challenging experience that you faced in the military?

A MUHAMMAD: When I was deployed to Iraq, going to war with the prospect of not knowing whether you'd come back home was something that was always on the mind of our soldiers. And before we left, I recall my commander saying to the spouses that he would do everything in his power to bring everyone back. And of course, four of us didn't come back. We had memorial services when we lost a few of our pilots, so I was helping people to get through the grief and the loss. You know, the questions that I asked myself I felt were very legitimate questions, like, should I be here doing this? And then I would certainly realize in the next thought, yes, I should. Who else is there? That would always help me to get through.

S MUHAMMAD: I can remember, of course, coming home. You would be kind of exhausted, more emotionally than physically because ministry is emotional, mental work.

A MUHAMMAD: I didn't realize some of the things that I would be called to do would be as difficult as they were. And maybe that's mercy from God - for us not to know certain things in advance. But I realized that I could, in fact, do hard things.

S MUHAMMAD: You're definitely one of the strongest people that I've ever met. And you have an integrity that I can admire and strive towards. So thank you.

A MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

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SIMON: Army chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad and his wife, Saleemah Muhammad - for StoryCorps, they recently recorded together in Fallbrook, Calif. The chaplain retired from active duty in 2012 after three decades of service. Their interview is archived at the U.S. Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.