By Karen Flowers
| Fort Sill Tribune | Nov. 13, 2020
Working together, basic combat trainees Spc. Elnaz Behnam, left, and Pvt. Rhett Swilling, apply a hasty recovery technique to safely remove a (simulated) wounded member of 4th Platoon to an evacuation site during an exercise at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. (Capt. Dylan Rice, D/1-31st FA) (Photo by U.S. Army photo)
A basic combat trainee at Fort Sill, on track to graduate the day before Thanksgiving, epitomizes German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s adage circa 1888 that “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”
At 40, Spc. Elnaz Behnam is twice the age of most of the 250 or so trainees assigned alongside her at D Battery, 1st Battalion, 31st Field Artillery.
While it took six months to obtain the waiver which allowed her to enlist in the U.S. Army, getting that waiver has been the least of the obstacles she has faced head-on and overcome during her life’s journey.
Born in Orumuh, a city in Iran, she would grow up to survive a chemical attack launched by the Iraqis during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War against Shalamecheh, a small Iranian town on that country’s border with Iraq. During an eight-year armed conflict where Saddam Hussein sought Iraqi dominance over Iran in the Persian Gulf, Shalamecheh became one of his main invasion sites.
“We were in school that day,” Behnam recalled, thinking back to the events of that horrific morning when she was but 5 or maybe 6 years old, and in the first grade.
When the chemical attack came, Behnam vividly remembers the teachers urging the children to quickly pull their school uniform shirts out, wet them in water, and cover their faces. “I lost a lot of my friends. Those that survived have chemical burns on their faces and hands.”
Behnam’s family would move far from the city, and for six months classes were taught remotely via television. The magnitude of the loss of life became tangible upon the students’ return to their school, where bouquets of flowers lay in their deceased classmates’ chairs. “Many, many of my classmates had been killed that day.”
Approaching the gas chamber on the East Range stirred up emotions long held in check, but Behnam maintained her professional composure and met the training requirements. She issued the following endorsement, “I can tell you these gas masks would work against a real attack.”
When she was 22 years old, Behnam was sexually assaulted, “the worst thing that can happen to a woman in the Middle East.” Not only was her lot in life subsequently cast as “beneath trash” (accompanied by Behnam’s gesture of sweeping her open hand just above the floor), she had (in the Middle Eastern culture) dishonored her family name. Culturally and from that moment forward, she faced absolutely no hope for any sort of future: no education, no job, no husband or family of her own.
And yet, within about a year she met a man, a human rights activist, who “helped me continue my way and complete my education.”
They married a week after meeting and later welcomed a child to their young family.
Behnam earned three degrees — a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctor of philosophy (PhD) — all in electrical engineering/ telecommunications. All of her degrees were awarded from Istanbul Technical University, which was founded in 1773 and is acknowledged as one of the world’s oldest technical universities.
No academic slouch, she wrote a book which evaluates three semi-empirical soil moisture estimation models. “Estimation Models In Agriculture Areas With RADAR SAT-2 Imagery Processing in the Southeast of Turkey” was written five years ago and published in Germany two years later.
Primarily because of her husband’s human rights activism, Behnam and her husband sought, applied for, and were granted political asylum in the United States.
With assistance from the United Nations, they and their young child boarded a plane in Istanbul, Turkey, and flew to a major metropolitan city in the United States. The only material possessions any of them took with them were the clothes they were wearing.
Although fluent in a number of Middle Eastern languages — Farsi, Dari, Azerbayganiz, Turkish, and Arabic among them — Behnam occasionally pauses when navigating the peculiarities of the English language. “English is sometimes difficult for me,” she admits. “Not just formal English, but also all the abbreviations and military acronyms.”
Deemed political refugees by the United Nations, Catholic Charities was tapped by the U.N. to come to the young family’s assistance as they settled into a suburb of that major metropolitan city where their flight had landed. It is there they began life over in that new world known to countless immigrants as the land of opportunity, the United States of America.
Upon graduation from BCT, Behnam is scheduled to attend advanced individual training at Fort Lee, Virginia, whereupon graduation she will possess a 91D Tactical Power Generation Specialist Military Occupational Specialty, and return home and to an assignment with an Army Reserve unit.
Shortly after reporting for AIT, Behnam and her husband are excitedly looking forward to becoming naturalized American citizens.
Behnam held several civilian jobs in this country before enlisting in the Army. The most recent position she held, and the one she will return to upon graduation from AIT, is site manager for a major American food products company.
Of the various challenges she has faced throughout her training here, Behnam quickly credits her battery leadership with motivating her toward overcoming each challenge and achieving her goals.
“(Battery Commander) Capt. Dylan Rice, and Senior Drill Sergeants (Staff Sgts.) Shea Goto and Belinda Graham are the biggest reasons I’m still here,” said Behnam, adding that she’s “very comfortable approaching Drill Sergeant Graham about my (training) weaknesses.”
Especially so when it has come to all the physical training demands, which will culminate in the record Army Combat Fitness Test. From day one, the 40-year-old Behnam has been “expected to run and to exercise like I’m 18 years old. I’m not lazy, and I’ve pushed myself because the drill sergeants want me to do better than my best,” she said.
While scoring at or above the requisite 60 points in every ACFT event, leg tucks pose the greatest personal challenge to Behnam — as they do to any number of trainees and Soldiers. The leg tuck, during which an individual hangs from a bar with an alternating grip and brings legs to chest, is designed to assess the strength of that individual’s grip, arm, shoulder, and trunk muscles, all of which are key to avoiding back injuries when carrying heavy loads.
“Given her age, being here takes a lot of personal courage from her,” said Graham, adding that Behnam “doesn’t want any special treatment. She executes everything without attitude. She wants to be here, and she shows it.”
Behnam handled a weapon for the first time in her life during BCT here, and set her sights on earning a sharpshooter badge. Awarded a marksman badge (one qualification level down from sharpshooter) instead, she is already looking forward to improving her score in subsequent record qualification trials.
“Emotionally, mentally, I’m in a nice situation here,” she said. “Trainees, both male and female, around me at the battery come and ask for life advice.”
In her assessment of the trainees she’s gotten to know, Behnam believes that the majority of them will find the Army is the first best thing they can do — personally, professionally, and financially.
Speaking for herself, Behnam said, “I want to be part of the Army, part of its strength, and I want to serve as a role model for women in the Middle East, to show them that they don’t have to accept the cultural norm of being a second- or third-class human being. To show them that they don’t have to accept the life (culturally) chosen for them, that opportunities in the world exist for them to better themselves.”
As regards fulfilling a 20-year U.S. Army career, Behnam is exploring several possibilities. She’s interested in serving as an interpreter; she is considering obtaining a second master’s degree; she wants to further her research and serve at the Department of Defense level; and she is weighing the possibility of becoming a commissioned officer and ultimately retiring as a field grade officer.