Nate Terani was 8 years old when he was at school and started hearing gunfire.
“These religious police, soldiers, stormed into the school, essentially grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and threw us all into this round courtyard,” he said.
It was 1985 and Terani was in Tehran, Iran. “It was right in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, right in sort of some of the most difficult and bloody period of that war,” he said. “But when we went there was a temporary ceasefire. There was a thought at the time that the war wasn’t going to resume.”
Normally, Terani lived in New Jersey with his parents, who were born in Iran. But that year, his family went to Tehran for an extended stay with relatives. He enrolled in a bilingual international school, with flags from different countries in the hallways representing the diversity of students’ nationalities.
It was also a time of a regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini, whose speeches often included an anti-American sentiment. Terani says his school became a target for the government's military forces.
“They took all the flags that were in the hallways and the American flag, in particular, set them on fire and set those flags burning into the courtyard,” said Terani, who added that the soldiers demanded that the kids chant “death to America” in Farsi, swear allegiance to the Khomeini and stomp on the burning flag.
“I was filled with what I would describe as real righteous indignation,” said Terani. “I think because of that sense of 'I'm an American.' And I have something that I need to stand up for here and now. And even at 8 years old I refused … to stomp on the flag.”
Nate and his family returned to the US, and Terani says that experience seeded his desire to join the US military. “I knew that I wanted to join the military, I knew I wanted to wear the American flag on my arm at that young age,” he said. “I knew it when I was in Cub Scouts and I was so filled with pride to wear that Cub Scout uniform.”
Terani’s story is part of “Loyalty Stories,” a short documentary that features portraits of Muslim Americans who have served in the US military.
He enlisted in 1997, during his first year in college. Eventually, he joined the US Navy Presidential Ceremonial Honor Guard, which is often assigned to funerals at Arlington National Cemetery or the White House. It’s a prestigious unit and Terani was one of the team’s first Muslims. “They appreciated the fact that they had an Iranian American, a Muslim American, as a part of this unit,” said Terani. “The images that we see are the opposite of images that we see of this sort of ambiguous hooded villain in the desert somewhere that's out to get you. The truth of the matter is that American Muslims have served in every war since the American Revolution that this country has ever fought.”
In 2006, Terani left the military. He says his family needed help with his ailing grandfather. Today, he is 41 years old and back in school, earning a degree in psychology. He also lives in Tucson, Arizona, near the US-Mexico border, where troops are deployed now, responding to a group of Central American migrants heading north that President Donald Trump calls a foreign “invasion.”
When asked, Terani said he would enlist again. But it gets more complicated when asked if that would mean being deployed to the border. “I think that's a really hard question,” Terani said. “I know I'm not in that position now and I'm not on active duty or in the military and I don't know if I can answer that. You know, if we’re talking about asylum-seekers and refugees and immigrants in this country, the message that we should be sending is that you are who built this country. And if we turn our backs on that sacred ideal, then we betray everything that those people in the military are serving.”
As a vet, he’s also committed to raising awareness about Muslims in the military. He was part of a veterans group that met with American Muslim communities in 2016 and sat with them as they broke their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. He protested the Trump administration’s travel ban in 2017 that affects people from predominantly Muslim countries.
“It’s fundamentally important that either Muslims or immigrants from any other group don't feel that they are alienated or isolated right now because of the rhetoric that is coming from certain politicians,” said Terani. “That rhetoric has to do with them and it has to do with fear baiting. We are so much greater than one politician’s fear baiting. We are so much greater than hate.”
Terani says his activism is an extension of his service — an extension, he says — of protecting the US flag from being trampled on like when he was a kid in Tehran.