Naveed Shah never thought of himself as an immigrant until the day a teacher said he couldn't become president.
"I moved here when I was 2 years old, I became a naturalized citizen when I was about 8," the 28-year-old said. "So I never saw my background as different until I learned (in middle school) that to become president you had to be born here. It was weird, because I'm as American as it gets."
On Tuesday, the Virginia real estate agent and activist will get a little closer to the commander in chief's seat, as a guest of the White House for the annual the State of the Union address. His story will be part of President Obama's larger theme of optimism and opportunity in America today.
"It's an enormous honor," the soldier-turned-veterans advocate said. "I almost didn't believe them when I got the invitation. I wondered what they could possibly want with me."
White House officials are tight-lipped about details of the annual address to Congress, but the president has promised to talk about America's "capacity to change for the better" and celebrate achievements of the past seven years.
Shah's background touches on several hot-button issues. His Pakistani family immigrated from Saudi Arabia when he was a toddler, moving from Georgia to South Carolina to Virginia during his childhood. He said he never felt isolated or different from his American-born peers, and never saw himself as anything but a proud Muslim American.
He was 13 when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rocked the country, a moment that struck him as a horrific perversion of his faith. He idolized the U.S. military throughout childhood and signed up for the Army shortly after high school graduation, deploying overseas to assignments in South Korea and Iraq.
Naveed Shah poses with his son, Yusuf, and fiancee, Ashley, outside a Washington Nationals game in 2015. Shah will be among the guests of first lady Michelle Obama at the annual State of the Union address Tuesday.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Naveed Shah
Four months into his Iraq deployment, he watched in horror from afar as his colleagues and friends at Fort Hood in Texas were shaken when a Muslim Army psychiatrist shot and killed 13 people and wounded 31 others.
His family was safe, but the event spurred him to be a more public advocate condemning Muslim extremism and highlighting true believers who are faithful American citizens.
After his active-duty tour ended, Shah became active with several veterans groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It's a chance to keep helping his fellow veterans, making sure they feel as welcome and connected back home as he has.
The anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail concerns him "because you can't judge anyone on their race or religion." He's raising his 7-year-old son, Yusuf, to be proud of both his Pakistani heritage and his American home.
"When he hears 'immigrants,' he's not thinking of some aliens or something foreign," he said. "To him it's his grandparents, his family. And he knows my background in the military, that I served this country.
"I understand the security issue is huge. People want to feel safe. I want my family to be safe. But hatred is not American."
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.