As a child, Kavon Hakimzadeh fled the Islamic Revolution in Iran with his family and found refuge in small-town Mississippi.
Now, 40 years later, he is back in the Arabian Gulf region, this time as the commander of the United States aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, which with tensions rising over the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani could play a role in any confrontation with his former homeland.
For many Iranian-Americans like Captain Hakimzadeh who serve in the United States armed forces, the oppression and turmoil of the Iranian Revolution cultivated an appreciation for the liberty that the United States military vows to uphold and defend, and inspired many to enlist.
“I think it is probably a lot to do with why I decided I wanted to serve and wanted to be in this line of work,” Captain Hakimzadeh told The Virginian-Pilot in an interview when he took command in August.
Captain Hakimzadeh, who could not be reached for comment this week, was born in Texas to an Iranian father and American mother and soon moved to Iran, where he lived until he was 11 and the 1979 revolution forced his family to flee.
The family ended up outside Hattiesburg, Miss. He enlisted in the Navy in 1987 and then earned a Navy ROTC scholarship, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and became a flight officer on the E-2 Hawkeye, a flying command post its manufacturer describes as the “digital quarterback” of combat missions.
In his 33-year career, Captain Hakimzadeh, who goes by the call sign Hak, has deployed eight times on several carriers, flown missions over Iraq and Afghanistan and been given several medals including the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star.
He now commands one of the most formidable weapons platforms on the planet — 20 stories tall, nuclear-powered and flying a red battle flag that reads “GIVE ’EM HELL.”
The carrier is able on short notice to scramble dozens of jets with a withering arsenal of precision bombs and missiles.
It is also a floating city of more than 5,000 crew members, with barber shops, exercise rooms and a mess hall that observes taco Tuesday.
Captain Hakimzadeh, who oversees it all, told The Virginian-Pilot that he hoped his rise from enlisted son of an immigrant to commander of a carrier showed that in his experience in the Navy, and the nation, rewarded dedication and hard work without prejudice.
“It’s certainly a testament to the United States of America that a guy named Kavon Hakimzadeh can do that,” he said.
Immigrants have long occupied an outsize portion of the military, and there is no shortage of them who fled Iran as children before enlisting in the United States as adults.
Passionate about freedom
“Because of where we came from we are very passionate about the cause of freedom, and we want to contribute in any way we can,” said Assal Ravandi, who served as an Army intelligence analyst from 2010 to 2014, and deployed to Afghanistan.
She said she was at first surprised to meet dozens of other Iranian-Americans in uniform.
“Some wanted to make up for what they couldn’t do for freedom at home,” she said. “Others wanted to use their language skills as a weapon to fight the dictatorship that ran us out of our homes.”
Now that violence is escalating between the United States and Iran, she said Iranian veterans are of two minds. Many still have extended families in Iran and do not want to see them suffer, she said.
At the same time, many in Iran have already suffered for decades under the oppressive Islamic Republic, she said.
“No one knows what to do,” said Ms. Ravandi, who is director of a small organization that does public relations for veterans.
“But if we are asked by our country, we will serve. I would re-enlist tomorrow.”