“Under The Pitch Black Sky: Junaid Lughmani”
Describe to me the moment you decided to join the military.
“Before I joined the Army, I was embedded with a military unit in Afghanistan where I was working as an interpreter and cultural adviser. Working in Afghanistan fresh out of college was a life-changing experience for me. When I was in school, I never planned to go to Afghanistan or join the military. Ever since I was little, I dreamed of being a sports journalist. But, as the saying goes, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.’ I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was actually lucky to be in Afghanistan. I gained incredible life experience early. When I returned home, I realized how much the Afghanistan experience changed me. The anxiety of being in a war zone hangs over you when you get back, but that environment also has a unique way of helping you grow mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. The transition to my old life was not easy. I missed the camaraderie of the military, the Afghan people, and our shared mission. I was in the thick of US foreign policy and working with people from all over the world. For a kid from the Bronx, having senators and members of Congress lean on you for guidance in your ancestral homeland was pretty cool. Healthcare was a nice industry to work in, but I felt guilty sitting on the sidelines while my friends were in Afghanistan, and I felt compelled to serve. I wanted to go back; only this time, as a soldier.”
What was your most profound experience while wearing a uniform?
“As a Muslim, I’ve prayed in Christian and Jewish services over the loss of friends and colleagues. I’ve seen some of the most remote areas in the world from extraordinary views. I’ve had enemy combatants express remorse for their actions to me. Others who expressed no guilt for taking innocent life. It was a profound experience. Sometimes I can smell the villages which we traveled through, or feel the adrenaline from the missions we went on. Looking back, some of the most peaceful moments were at night under a pitch-black sky thinking of loved ones back home. It was an unbelievable experience that’s difficult to put into words. War is a unique experience.”
When you hear the term “leader” who is the first to come to mind?
“The first leader who comes to mind is Brigadier General Mark Martins. He was the deputy commander of Joint Task Force 435, the unit I was assigned to as an interpreter. BG Martins graduated number one overall in his class at West Point, was a Rhodes Scholar and graduated top of his class at Harvard Law School, where he was classmates with President Obama. When you were in BG Martins’ presence, you knew he was special. I always admired how kind BG Martins was to others. He engaged with everybody, whether you were a soldier, civilian, or local national, BG Martins respected and treated everyone the same. He was a tireless worker who never settled for anything. So much of what our government was able to accomplish with the rule of law in Iraq and Afghanistan was because of BG Martins. His impact on both wars, and societies, will be felt for a very, very long time. Imagine being tasked with the responsibility of establishing law in the midst of war, and in some of the most complex and rural parts of the world. To me, BG Martins is the gold standard. To this day, I am inspired by him. Plus, he’s a Bronx guy and he’s a Yankee fan, too!”
You mentioned growing up in the Bronx – how has the Bronx influenced you?
“The Bronx is such an interesting place to grow up. There were hundreds of kids on my block. It’s crazy to think that it wasn’t too long ago that my family and I were living in a two-bedroom apartment, all seven of us. The thing about growing up like that, especially in an immigrant family, is that you learn to sacrifice and make things work. It was like that for a lot of us in my old neighborhood. Almost all of my friends came from immigrant families. Our parents left behind their family and friends and came to America to provide us with a better future. I wouldn’t trade growing up in the Bronx for anything. None of us had much, but we had each other, and to be a part of a community is one of the greatest gifts you can give a kid. It’s what help me succeed later in my life, especially in the Army and in Afghanistan. That and the Bronx has the best pizza.”
Have you considered pursuing a career as a sports journalist since college?
“I still think about it a lot, but I don’t think so. I’ve loved sports since I was a little boy. Some of the most influential people in my life have been athletes and journalists. Sports is and always will be a big part of my life, but I just have different goals in life now. I would rather use sports to help others than to fulfill my own desires. I would love to use sports to help kids in the inner city and rural America, even Afghanistan or other war-ravaged countries. That’s the beauty of sports, it transcends culture, brings people together, and gives them hope.”
What’s the best advice you would give the younger you?
“Do what scares you, and don’t let metrics define you. There were a lot of times in Afghanistan or in the Army that I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing or living through. I’m grateful that I took risks in my life, especially when I left for Afghanistan as an interpreter because that experience changed my life forever. I had just started my career when I left for Afghanistan, and I developed incredible friendships and found amazing mentors through that experience. If I had paid attention to statistics, I would never have taken that risk. In this data-driven age, young people hear numbers and lose hope. It discourages them from pursuing an education at these elite schools or taking chances in life. As leaders, we need to do a better job in how we use data to our advantage. We need to look beyond the numbers and learn about the story behind the individual. I’ll never forget when the Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was becoming overly reliant on statistics, and our old manager Joe Torre said to him, ‘Never forget there’s a heartbeat in this game.’ Life is that way, too. Our lives are not meant to be like a final draft.”
Besides the obvious, what is the biggest difference between the military and civilian world?
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the military, but the most alarming to me is this unwarranted assumption that we lack diversity in our ranks. When I was in the Army, I had colleagues who had high school diplomas, college degrees, and PhDs. At first, I thought that was normal, but it’s not always like that in the private sector. We had people from the inner-city, rural America, and immigrants from all around the world in our force. People in the Army come from a wide range of the socio-economic spectrum. It’s such a fascinating place to learn about people. I love the Army, and I’m so thankful for everything that it gave me.”
How has military service changed you?
“Until I was in a position of leadership, I learned that being a leader is so much harder than it looks. You learn to be calm in chaos.”
Who are some of your heroes?
“My parents are my heroes. I am thankful for what my parents gave me: unconditional love and support. Leaving Pakistan for America, learning a new way of life, and raising five children in the Bronx was not easy, but they did it. I admire them for their resilience, and I appreciate that they let me and my siblings make our own choices. My parents stood back, bit their tongues, and let us grow into our own. It took a lot of patience, but they gave us independence, and for that, I am grateful.”