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When He Ran for Congress, Opponents Called Him a ‘Security Risk’ — Now He’s Defending the U.S. (Exclusive)

Five years after being subject to racially charged attacks, a former congressional candidate got his "redeeming moment" — being sworn in as a U.S. naval officer at the same spot where he was once called a national threat

<p>Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum</p> Ammar Campa-Najjar is sworn in as a U.S. naval officer on Aug. 31, 2023

Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum

Ammar Campa-Najjar is sworn in as a U.S. naval officer on Aug. 31, 2023

Five years after being falsely accused of terrorism by members of the Republican Party, a former congressional candidate — in what he calls a "redeeming moment" — has been sworn in as a U.S. naval officer. Adding to the achievement, his swearing-in took place at the same site where he was once called a national threat.

It was 2018 when Ammar Campa-Najjar, then a Democratic candidate running for a seat in the House of Representatives, became a target of racially charged attacks — many of them stemming from his Republican opponent, then-incumbent Duncan D. Hunter, and Hunter's politician father.

Hunter weaponized Campa-Najjar's heritage throughout the campaign, referring to him at times an “Islamist” trying to “infiltrate Congress," despite that Campa-Najjar is a Christian.

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At one point in the campaign, Hunter's father, former Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr., even held a so-called “security briefing" about Campa-Najjar near the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, going so far as to call him a security risk.

The moment, says Campa-Najjar, was "surreal." Particularly, he adds, because it was based around his "heritage and ethnicity," not his actions.

Campa-Najjar, a 34-year-old Latino Arab American, was born in San Diego to a Palestinian father and Mexican American mother, and lived in the Gaza Strip as a child. His grandfather — who was assassinated long before he was born — was accused of playing a role in the 1972 "Munich massacre," a terrorist attack that Campa-Najjar has strongly condemned.

<p>Sandy Huffaker/Getty</p> Ammar Campa-Najjar speaks to media on Dec. 3, 2019, during his second congressional campaign

Sandy Huffaker/Getty

Ammar Campa-Najjar speaks to media on Dec. 3, 2019, during his second congressional campaign

Campa-Najjar ultimately lost the 2018 election to Hunter, and would go on to lose another congressional bid in 2020 and a run for mayor of Chula Vista, California, in 2022. But looking back, he says that being wrongfully accused of threatening the United States during his first campaign paved a path for his swearing-in to be "the most redeeming moment of my life."

That's because, on Thursday, Campa-Najjar returned to the scene of that original "security briefing" by Hunter Sr. — the USS Midway — this time to be sworn in as a United States naval officer.

"I am reminded of the quote from Winston Churchill, 'The reservist is twice the citizen,'" Campa-Najjar, who previously worked in the Department of Labor under Obama, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. "Today, in front of my family, friends, my grandmother in heaven and God, I stood aboard the USS Midway and swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend our nation as a commissioned United States Navy Officer. Twice the citizen."

<p>Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum</p> Ammar Campa-Najjar stands aboard the USS Midway at his swearing-in

Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum

Ammar Campa-Najjar stands aboard the USS Midway at his swearing-in

Campa-Najarr tells PEOPLE his dreams of joining the military began when he was 17 years old, when he went into a San Diego recruiter's office during Fleet Week and filled out the necessary paperwork to join the Navy.

His mother refused to sign off on the decision, due to his father being away at the time. "My younger brother and mom needed me. Instead, I worked as a janitor and handyman at my church to help support our family," he says.

Seventeen years later, he'd get his chance "to fulfill a dream I’ve had for half my life," he says.

Campa-Najarr stops short of calling the moment poetic justice, though he's aware that there's a certain poetry to his path.

"Only in America can the son of a Mexican woman from the barrio and an Arab man from a conflict zone have the freedom to chart his own course, serve his country, and become a Navy Officer for the greatest military the world has ever known," he says.

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<p>Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum</p> Ammar Campa-Najjar surrounded by loved ones at his swearing-in on Aug. 31, 2023

Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum

Ammar Campa-Najjar surrounded by loved ones at his swearing-in on Aug. 31, 2023

Those who know him agree, with democratic strategist and former Biden official Adrian Eng-Gastelum telling PEOPLE: "Ammar’s story encapsulates what it's like to run for office in America as a young, first-generation person of color."

The journey "from Gaza and the barrio to a congressional candidate smeared by disinformation to a Navy Officer," Eng-Gastelum adds, is one "about resilience in the face of racism and xenophobia that reinforces our shared hope that we can live up to the American Dream."

California Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a former naval officer and the son of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, says that Campa-Najjar's "expertise in languages, cultures, and communications" will prove valuable in the Navy.

“Mr. Campa-Najjar’s experience living in the Middle East as an American strengthened his fidelity to our country and values," Pannetta tells PEOPLE. "His desire to serve in the U.S. Navy stems from firsthand experience with the fragility of democracy and a profound understanding of the need to protect and fight for our freedoms and values around the world."

<p>Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum</p> Ammar Campa-Najjar, third from the left, poses at his swearing-in

Courtesy of Adrian Eng-Gastelum

Ammar Campa-Najjar, third from the left, poses at his swearing-in

With his swearing-in out of the way, Campa-Najjar is focused on the road ahead — though he demurs when asked if that road might include another run for political office.

"'Officers eat last' is an old military adage, that’s how I intend to lead our sailors alongside my fellow officers, by serving them," he says.

The Navy, he adds, is a particularly welcome place to be for someone who's been outcast or ostracized — someone, it seems, like him.

"There’s a reason the Navy is one of our country’s greatest institutions," he says. Young, old, white, Black, Latino, Brown, immigrant, straight, gay, rich, poor, liberal or conservative - in this uniform we are all bound by a common cause and shared destiny. ... This is how you turn personal pain into collective purpose."

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And despite the personal pain, Campa-Najjar hasn't grown disillusioned by politics just yet.

"The majority of Americans believe our differences, as interesting as they are, can never outweigh our common humanity. I experience that every day," he says, adding: "That’s what motivates me to continue serving."

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