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US soldier alleges harassment for association of her name with Islam

The disturbing story of a U.S. Army sergeant’s painful odyssey through three tours of duty while enduring regular harassment because of her name illustrates just why federal civil rights law prohibits religious discrimination in federal employment. Through active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class Nadia Christian Nova, formerly known as Naida Hosan, was the recipient of verbal abuse because of her then-last name’s similarity to family names associated with the practice of Islam.

AP recently released a detailed feature story in which Nova, who is Catholic with family ties to Islam, discussed the challenging experience that included being the object of crude comments and that at one point made her depressed and suicidal. When she raised the issue of her treatment by her colleagues with her superiors, she says she was retaliated against, rather than supported.

She alleges that not only did her fellow soldiers engage in the harassing behavior, but also some military personnel higher in rank.

As a Farsi linguist in military intelligence, Nova is surely the type of person the U.S. military would find valuable in a soldier, since Farsi is widely spoken in Afghanistan and Iran. She alleges that when she complained about ethnically offensive jokes, she was told to “stop making trouble,” after which she filed a formal administrative complaint against the Army’s discriminatory and offensive working environment.

She was then ordered to take a mental health assessment, called in writing a “Muslim sympathizer,” and transferred to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Before another tour in Afghanistan, she changed her name in hope of deferring some of the negative treatment. However, when on duty she complained about military treatment of Muslim documents, she was told not to “bring [her] religion to work” and shortly thereafter sent back to the U.S.

According to the AP article, she then filed another complaint, this time with the Army’s Inspector General, requesting a voluntary discharge based on her treatment. Instead, despite a positive performance review, her superiors tried to have her removed from the military and ineligible for reenlisting.

After exhausting her internal administrative remedies, she filed a complaint in federal district court for religious discrimination, requesting that the court enjoin the Army from discharging her. She reportedly settled the case after the military rescinded its disciplinary actions. She is about to depart for a new Army post in Germany and hopes to leave the terrible experience in the past.

Any federal employee, military or otherwise, who feels improperly or illegally discriminated against, harassed or retaliated against by his or her federal employer, should speak with an employment attorney with specific experience with cases in which the legal rights of federal employees were violated.