Breaking barriers among the ranks

  • Published
  • By Darrius Parker
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – A few years ago, a Jewish officer helped a Muslim judge advocate general applicant get religious-accommodation rules changed, which paved a new path for more Muslims to serve in the Air Force.

On the first day she joined up, Capt. Maysaa Ouza, 88th Air Base Wing chief of adverse actions, saw how hard she would have to fight to represent her Muslim religion and be able to wear a hijab.

“When I first entered in 2018, I was told that I would not be allowed to apply for a religious accommodation until I had commissioned, completed Officer Training School and arrived to my first duty station,” she recalled. “I was essentially asked to choose between my faith and service.

“No one should have to choose between serving their country and practicing the tenets of their faith. I chose to serve because I wanted to protect and defend the freedoms of this country, yet ironically enough, I felt like my religious freedom was being stripped away.”

Ouza sought legal representation and wound up receiving help from Capt. Yosef Hochheiser, a Jewish officer and Air Force reservist then assigned to Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

“I received news about a candidate who wore a hijab, and I was consulted about how I personally received my religious accommodation to wear a yarmulke,” said Hochheiser, now an 88 ABW assistant staff judge advocate. “Because of my experience getting those accommodations, I was asked to research the guidance on the subject.

“I sat there and thought this is the United States military; this is the American story. Who would have thought that a Jewish officer would be advocating for religious accommodations for a Muslim woman?”

Ouza said she didn’t know who he was but quickly developed a positive impression.

“I could tell after meeting Capt. Hochheiser for the first time that he was very welcoming and kind,” Ouza said. “Knowing that I had someone so positive and willing to commit so much to this cause, no matter our differences, really showed me who Capt. Hochheiser was as a person.”

In February 2020, the Air Force made it official, granting her the religious accommodation and making her the first Muslim authorized to wear a hijab in uniform.

Sometime later when Hochheiser arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he heard about the success for Ouza and messaged her on Facebook.

“We shared stories about our family, our struggles with anti-Semitism and xenophobic attacks, and about how our circumstance has brought awareness and unity to those around us,” Hocheiser said. “We shared the joy of service and the unique opportunity that we both have to represent our communities within the military and to represent the military within our communities. We are more alike than we are different. We are colleagues, we are Airmen and we are family.”

The bond between Ouza and Hochheiser is certainly unique, especially given the longtime tension, conflict and climate that exists within Jewish and Muslim factions.

The world is accustomed to both communities showing contempt toward one another, the two Air Force officers say, but this situation highlights the promise that could be.

“There has been so much negativity and hate in the world, and it makes me smile knowing that Capt. Ouza and I can shine a little light during these times of darkness,” Hochheiser said. “Capt. Ouza and myself will continue to stand together to combat hate and we will continue to show love, unity and inclusion.”

The change in religious accommodation may have been groundbreaking for Air Force policy, but the strong partnership and teamwork that formed between Ouza and Hochheiser has been felt throughout the world.

“For the most part, the feedback that we received on social media was beautiful,” Ouza said. “The comments that people gave were very kind and wonderful, and this idea of diversity and inclusion is what people need.”

Now stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ouza’s fight for faith is still being recognized by many as a fight for diversity the Air Force needed.

“She is a source of inspiration for a lot of people in the Muslim community,” said Lt. Col. David Feith, 88 ABW staff judge advocate. “You see a Muslim professional woman serving in the armed forces and it’s unusual. She is a true trailblazer.

“The Air Force is a place where people can go to succeed, be part of a team and be valued. We have too much work and we don’t have time for somebody to feel like they aren’t part of the team and aren’t valued only because they are perceived as different. We need everyone.”

As recognition of Ouza’s efforts spread worldwide, she has been offered multiple opportunities to represent the Muslim community, as well as the Air Force, such as…

  • Offering a prayer during the Air Force birthday worship service at Washington National Cathedral
  • Offering a prayer by invitation from the chief of chaplains
  • Offering a prayer in Arabic at the National Prayer Breakfast on Scott Air Force Base, Illinois
  • Offering a prayer at the commissioning ceremony of the Air Force’s first female Muslim chaplain
  • Provided a briefing regarding religious accommodations and diversity during a chaplain seminar at the University of Toledo College of Law (Ouza’s alma mater)
  • Invited to speak at multiple events concerning Air Force religious accommodations in her hometown of Dearborn, Michigan

Ouza takes every opportunity to express her encouragement toward Airmen who wish to receive religious accommodations, and also those who believe in something that could result in another potential first.

“There’s so much uncertainty with being the first,” she said. “But sometimes, you just have to step out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself and take charge of your future.”

The Air Force not only gave Ouza an abundant amount of opportunities, she says, it also gave her the chance to live freely with no restrictions on her faith.

“Diversity makes us a better Air Force,” she said. “Get to know your Airmen and create a safe space for them. We should create a space where we have embracement, respect and are welcoming. We are multifaceted beings; we are all connected in one way or another.”

جمال العالم يكمن في تنوع شعبه, also translated from Arabic as the “beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people,” Ouza added.

Ouza lives by these words each day as she not only represents the Muslim community, but also serves the nation as an Air Force officer.