by U.S. Navy Seaman Cody Deccio
June 4, 2018
A young man stands tall, across the world, looking out past the horizon, completely encompassed by water in every direction. The ground on which he stands isn’t made of earth and the water he drinks doesn’t fall from the sky or come from a river. The sound of machinery and the smell of fuel resonates around the clock and artificial light becomes much more common than ambient. Massive propellers turn and twist constantly, pushing his home through the sea. His speech is cloaked in a thick African accent, but the banner flown from the mast is American. The nightly prayer that echoes around the decks at night is Christian, but always close to him is a copy of the Quran. Amongst roughly 5,000 people who live aboard his ship, Personnel Specialist 3rd Class Mamadou Mbengue stands out, not only as an African immigrant, but also as a devout Muslim.
Today, Mbengue is many things, such as a husband, a brother, a follower of the teachings of Islam and a Sailor in the United States Navy. If you were to backtrack several years, however, you would see Mbengue has taken his journey in leaps, instead of steps.
At the age of 13, Mbengue’s passion for American music pushed him to begin learning English. Using his money to buy dictionaries, he would spend hours after school practicing his pronunciation and expanding his vocabulary. As years went by his love grew and he doubled down on his pursuit to learn the language, choosing to major in English after being accepted to college in Senegal, Africa.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do after getting my degree,” said Mbengue. “It ended up being a good choice though because I ended up coming to America. Many people struggle with communicating when they get here. I mean, I still have an accent, people definitely notice it, but I know grammar very well and can write better than I can speak. Sometimes people wonder if it’s really me writing because of my tongue and accent.”
Having obtained an associate degree, Mbengue found himself working toward his bachelor’s degree when he was approached by a classmate about an opportunity to receive a permanent residency card. Initially hesitant, he decided to take the opportunity and begin his application process. To his surprise, he was the only one of his five friends who applied that day who was selected. Later that year, at the age of 25, Mbengue said his goodbyes to his mother, father, four sisters, two brothers and many friends and moved to Columbus, Ohio to live with his uncle and begin his new life.
“It’s the land of opportunity, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to come to America,” said Mbengue. “Leaving all my family back home wasn’t easy but they understand that I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities back home.”
With a fair cultural understanding and a stable footing, Mbengue left the home he had known for 25 years for the “land of opportunity.”
America’s war on terror was still very much in effect, with forces routinely performing operations in the Middle East against Islamic extremist groups and militant factions. News outlets across the country commonly ran stories about an anti-Muslim American population. However, Mbengue, a military age Muslim from a foreign country, had no reservations about his new home.
“My uncle had lived in America for a long time and told me how things really were,” said Mbengue. “People were friendly and respectful, there were places to worship and other Muslims all over. I wasn’t afraid to come and since I’ve been here I haven’t been persecuted because of my faith.”
Two years came and went as Mbengue established his footing in his new home. Working several entry level jobs, he tried several times to go back to school and finish his degree.
“I couldn’t get a job that would make my schedule fit with school,” said Mbengue. “I tried a few times to go to school during that time, but was worried about wasting money if I would have started failing classes.”
Education, after all, was the driving force behind Mbengue’s decision to come to America. He was desperate for a new opportunity and found one when he was invited to accompany a friend to talk to a recruiter.
“I didn’t know anything about the military except that you could get money for your education,” said Mbengue. “I thought about the war, my uncle tried to dissuade me from joining, but I decided it was the best decision I could make for my future at this point.”
With a raw perspective on what awaited him, Mbengue found himself in Recruit Training Command spending each morning and evening donning and doffing a uniform and learning to conform to a military lifestyle, while still upholding the values and principles of his faith.
“I hope God understands why,” said Mbengue. “I took every opportunity I had to pray and worship while I was in boot camp. There just wasn’t a lot of time and privacy was always kind of an issue. I didn’t have my prayer garment or prayer rug, but I knew there would be some sacrifices made with my decision to join.”
Mbengue graduated basic training and moved onto his new command. As a petty officer stationed aboard a warship that has been forward deployed to the Middle East, he was closer to home than he had been since 2015. Supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, Mbengue followed and gave orders without hesitation, acting true to the vows he made during his enlistment oath.
“The war in the Middle East isn’t about Muslims like you hear all the time,” said Mbengue. “If you are a true follower of Allah and the Quran then you could never do what those people do. It’s unfortunate that the two have been kind of grouped together in that way, but most people who actually take the time and learn about Islam know the difference. My duty is here so this is where I’ll be. I don’t see it as me being against other Muslims.”
With a completely voluntary military in a country that is known for being a melting pot of cultures, so many different lifestyles have to learn to interact with one another. All working together, everyone is required to make the mission go successfully, making teamwork more of a priority in people’s minds than personal differences.
“I’ve never had an issue with my faith while in the Navy,” said Mbangue. “My chain of command is understanding when it comes to my prayers during the day. Nobody has ever tried to bully me or confront me about being Muslim. Everyone I’ve come across just treats me the same as anyone else. I wish there could’ve been more of an option for food, but we were out to sea so what can you really expect? I obviously stay away from pork when they serve it and sometimes there’s not a lot to eat but we all sacrifice.”
Every day as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, Mamadou Mbangue conducts his prayer and stays true to his faith while still upholding his responsibilities as a public servant. Continuing to move forward with his career and personal life he is grateful for the discipline he’s developed, relationships he’s made and experiences he’s endured while in the Navy. Mbangue plans to complete one more tour then move on with his goal of perusing higher education. Like many other active service members who also live by the Muslim faith, he serves his country with admiration, dedication and pride.