Breaking Boundaries Story by Simone brady

Both in and out of uniform, Sarra Debbabi carries herself with a certain degree of authority. Her posture is nearly perfect and her gaze is always straight.

She walks the halls of Jeffersonville High School as a junior this year, and she’s already made Vice Corps Commander in the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, also known as the AFJROTC.

To some people, this may seem mundane. However, Debbabi is the first Muslim to ever make Vice Corps Commander at JHS. She wears the hijab, a religious headscarf, with her uniform, and uses the most modest version of the suit.

Her religion hasn’t stopped her from achieving at a high level, though. She makes sure that her schoolwork and personal life are balanced.

“I joined for leadership and discipline, honestly,” Debbabi said. “I stayed because I really like the program.”

As with most senior positions in clubs and organizations, however, being Vice Corps Commander isn’t without its annoyances.

“My least favorite part of having the added responsibilities is that I don’t always have the ability to go home after drill practice and staff meetings, which makes me miss out on homework time. That’s difficult, because I’m taking four AP classes this year,” Debbabi said.

She also stated that it’s difficult when some of the other cadets goof off in class, and she wasn’t shy in expressing her frustration.

“The most difficult part is that some of the cadets don’t take ROTC seriously,” Debbabi said. “They joke around, which is okay when it’s appropriate, but not when we’re doing an assignment.”

As a student, Debbabi has also maintained a 4.0 GPA during her first two years of high school. To anyone who knows her, though, her achievements are far from a surprise. Col. Robert Benning, one of the instructors in the AFJROTC program, praised Debbabi’s leadership skills.

“She was Color Guard Commander in her sophomore year, which is a position we don’t often give to underclassmen,” Benning said.

Senior Master Sergeant William Eihusen expressed similar sentiments, commenting that Sarra is “an outstanding cadet, and very mature for her age.” Both instructors also commended her academic performance.

The AFJROTC promotes a “whole person” concept, which motivates cadets to strive for both strong interpersonal relationships and strong academic performance. Col. Benning stressed that Debbabi was not chosen because of her gender, religion, or race, but on her merit.

“She really cares for the program and the cadets,” Benning said.

Even knowing that she was appointed due to her achievements, the fact that Debbabi has such a respectable position could open the door for other Muslims;

Despite all of her ambition and achievement, there are some people out there who would love to see her fail, simply based on her religion. The dialogue surrounding Islam and American Muslims has become increasingly vitriolic and xenophobic in the last few years, especially with the rise of extremists, like ISIS, and acts of terrorism, such as 9/11.

These terrible events have clouded the public’s view of Islam and its 1.6 billion adherents. Even Muslims who are American citizens, born on American soil, have been subjected to prejudice for following their religion and keeping in touch with their various, colorful cultures.

Debbabi, herself, has also felt hatred at times, claiming, “I just got called a terrorist within the last week.”

In the vast majority of cases, terror related to a person’s religion is patently untrue -- the most recent estimate of the population of American Muslims puts it at 3.3 million, and only 81 people were arrested in connection with Islamic extremism in 2015.

Even knowing that information, there are people who will continue to be uncomfortable with Muslims’ presence in such a quintessentially American organization, which is structured similarly to our Armed Forces.

By becoming Vice Corps Commander in the AFJROTC, however, Sarra Debbabi has proven all of those critics wrong.


Sam Gatewood

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