Five Muslims who joined the Army to work as military translators say their lives and careers were ruined after they were falsely accused of trying to poison their fellow soldiers. In an interview for ABC News, two of the men say an Army investigation into the matter has cast a stigma on their lives, preventing them from gaining citizenship and employment.
"I was like, 'What's going on here?' This is not America, that's not why I joined the Army," said one of the men, 34-year-old Khalid Lyaacoubi.
The men are all citizens of Morocco who were permanent "green card" residents of the U.S. They joined the Army in 2009 as part of a special program called "09 Lima" that would train them to work as Army translators in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. In return for their service, the men would be fast tracked for U.S. citizenship.
"We want to prove to Arabic nations, 'we are Arabic and we live here. We lived with Americans and socialized with Americans.' We know they are good," said Lyaacoubi.
"The United States is known for fighting for other people's freedom, and I like it and I wanted to help doing that," said another Muslim recruit, 27-year-old Yassine Bahammou.
Trouble at Fort Jackson
The five men successfully completed basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, which they say was a positive and rewarding experience. However, it was during specialized training as translators at the Advanced Individual Training school on base that they say their lives were upended. They say it all began in November of 2009 when Major Nidal Hassan opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 31. In the wake of the shooting, Lyaacoubi and Bahammou said some of their fellow soldiers began to turn on them, calling them "terrorists" and "Hajis" behind their backs.
Then in November of 2009, the five Muslim recruits were arrested by the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) over a tip that they were allegedly plotting to poison their fellow soldiers at Fort Jackson. The news of the investigation broke on the Christian Broadcasting Network and quickly became national news.
Without being formally charged with a crime, the men were questioned about the poisoning allegation and accused of larceny, mutiny and conspiracy. The recruits were detained in their barracks building for 45 days and were escorted by guards wherever they went, including the bathroom. They said they were prohibited from speaking Arabic to each other or to family members on the phone. All along, the men said they told investigators they had no idea where the poisoning allegation came from and they vigorously maintained their innocence.
During this time, the men also said they were subjected to anti-Muslim harassment and abuse by authorities. The recruits claim they were told they would be sent to Guantanamo and one of the men said a CID agent told him he would be sent back to Morocco "in a box".
"They were treating us as a terrorist," said Lyaacoubi. "I never forget what this agent, she told me. She was like, "We are at war against Islam and you are a Muslim. Well, what are you going to do about that."
"I see that my religion is the problem, or the part of the world that I am from is the problem," said Bahammou. "I asked them to take me to church so I can change my religion, if that's the problem."