Air Force Airman overcomes culture shock

  • Published
  • 4th Fighter Wing
FORT MEADE, MARYLAND – An older man walked with tremors and a cane; his shorter stature was more apparent due to his noticeable slouch like an arch bridge. Behind the elder were a total of five women, one after the other walking silently and carefully as if to ensure their next step did not overpass the male. The women wore a hijab that covered their features, the black color leaked into the ground as they passed. Their bodies were concealed under a curtain except for their eyes, which did not hide their tender age.

Airman 1st Class Antwain Hanks, 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron force protection, recalled this memory as a moment of frustration and shock. The disturbed image of a 60-year-old man who had his five wives stay behind him as he walked was unsettling.

The Houston, Texas native who grew up admiring his mother and sisters, was bombarded with clashing ideologies when witnessing the drastic change of treatment for women in a different country, these divided viewpoints gave him a deeper perspective on his values.

“They gave us a brief the first day we got there, telling us stoning is still a thing, if you see it don’t interfere,” said Hanks. “The military told us to not barge in, that it’s their country’s rules and laws, it was under their discretion.”

The notion of treating women as property conflicted with his inner belief.
“Is it justifiable to the means? It’s hard to sit there and watch someone be in that situation and not be able to help,” exclaimed Hanks. “I am a guest in their country, and even though I don’t agree with what you do, I still have to show respect to their laws.”

Tapping his fingers against the table before clasping them into tight fists, he recalls his 2020 deployment in Ali AL Salem Air Force Base, Kuwait. Hanks was responsible for escorting foreign identities off and on base to maintain secure and safe operations.

“We would watch out for adversaries in groups of two, from early morning to late at night, we watched every detail of their work,” Hanks adds.
His monotonous duties let him witness the perspective of the middle eastern man, which reminded him of memories of his distant past.

“My father was an alcoholic who was abusive to my mother,” said Hanks. “I don’t talk to my father for those reasons. I grew up with most of my family being women and most of them have been through trauma.”

Hanks thought back to the prejudice his grandparents faced during the Civil Rights Movement and the treatment his mother and sister went through, which nurtured his beliefs and values. His perspective is that wrongful discrimination of race or sex is a misdeed.

Hanks asserts that his environment empowers his philosophy.

“If you hate someone that does evil then that leaves you to do good,” he revealed. “You need to stand up for people, everyone has downfalls, and some people might not have the capabilities to stand up for themselves. Me as a person I need to do something to help [them].”

The societal norm in Kuwait caused a quarrel within himself, he did not want to stand by and let mistreatment happen in front of him.

“I wouldn’t want my mom, sister or any women to be treated that way,” he argued. “I felt frustrated and confused because life is hard but the people you meet can make it easier, but this society made it harder for women, their wives.”

Hanks was taught to respect and value women, so the fact that this was not a concept for everyone troubled him.

As a military member it is foremost to stay neutral regardless of one’s own belief, but never was this idea as dominant in Hank's mind until his deployment.

“After going there, I realized that there is a right, a wrong, and a gray,” he explained. “For various reasons people can end up in the gray area, but you cannot let your point of view overpower your ability to understand. You can’t treat someone badly just because you disagree.”

Hanks doubled-down on his values when returning home to visit his loved one’s after 9-months of being away.

“The experience put an emphasis on me to extend an open arm to more than just my family,” said Hanks. “It was a reflection of two different sides of the world, I was blessed that my family didn’t experience that [side].”

When Antwain returned home to see his mother and sister again, he felt happy and relieved to know where they lived came with freedom of expression and speech. His happiness turned into gratitude, aware that their suburban home in Houston, Texas would be a place where his values would be understood and appreciated.