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Friday May 24, 2024
Cover Theme: South Asians In the U.S. Military
Duty, Honor, Loyalty:
All That They Can Be
Vol: 1 Num: 2    Spring 2006
Many smart, hard-working and ambitious South Asian immigrant sons and daughters of doctors, teachers, business owners and professionals are opting for un-conventional careers in the United States military.

RED 8, RED 8, THIS IS RED 6. YOU JUST GOT HIT WITH AN RPG! ARE YOU OK?" 1st Lt. Neil Prakash had just seen a Rocket Propelled Grenade explode on a tank in his command and even though he knew that it seemed silly to say that to someone just hit by an RPG he also knew that in the confusion of battle it’s hard to figure out what got hit including the back of your own tank. He later wrote in his blog that his stomach turned and he felt sick but fortunately Red 8, SSG Terry, was okay.

It was November 2004 and 1st Lt. Neil Prakash, whose call sign is Red 6, was leading his tank platoon through the street of Fallujah clearing it of insurgents. The U.S. Forces had faced stiff opposition but now were in better control of the city.

Somewhere near Fallujah, Captain Sudip Bose, an emergency medicine doctor from Illinois was treating two fellow soldiers who were injured when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit their Humvee. Dr. Bose, one of the few front line doctors in Fallujah, was assigned to an infantry unit that was going to many hot spots including Fallujah and Najaf, when it heated up due to Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias’ standoff with the U.S. Forces. A trauma specialist, Dr Bose was taking care of more patients than originally anticipated due to a shortage of emergency physicians.

More than a decade earlier, Sergeant Harpreet (Harp) Bains was in the same region too fighting the Republican Guards when his unit out of 3rd Infantry Division in Germany was deployed in Iraq during Desert Storm. His 4-7 Infantry was part of the multi-corps "left Hook" from the west, which swept around the Iraqi defenses and destroyed Republican Guards.

Prakash, Bose, now a Major, and Bains, also a Major, are part of a growing number of South Asians who are joining the United States military. Their contributions are recognized by the commander-in-chief, President Bush, who mentioned them when he visited South Asia. He also invited, Sergeant Wasim Khan, a Pakistani American wounded in Iraq, to sit in the balcony with the First Lady during his State of the Union address.

Immigrants from South Asia typically choose to become doctors, engineers, programmers and other professionals. Now some of these smart, ambitious and hard working young people are opting for a career in the armed forces.

Choosing Their Own Destiny

"I always liked the military. I was very much interested", says Bains, whose grandfather was in the Indian Army, and then adds about his decision to join the U.S. military, "My parents were scared but they knew me that if I am gonna do it then I am gonna do it." New Delhi born Bains was 20 years old when he joined the Army in 1986 few months after coming to the USA.

The news of one’s children joining the United States military is not a very comforting thought for many South Asian American parents, a majority of whom traditionally pursued a professional career. However, they usually come around to accepting the choices of their sons and daughters as was the case with EM2 Prakash Chaudhary, an immigrant of Indian origin from the Fiji Islands.

When 19 year old Chaudhary decided to enlist in the Navy in 2002, his parents too were not happy, as he says, "They were unhappy but said it is your choice and we will support you whatever you want to do." Chaudhary, who is an Electrician Mate in charge of distributing and maintaining the electrical equipment aboard the USS Lake Champlain CG57, chose to join the Navy because he was impressed by his elder brother’s job at a power plant in the Fiji Islands. Now he is doing the same thing that his brother used to do – generate power.

Bose, whose father is an engineer and mother a banker, chose to join the Army because he wanted to go for emergency medicine and the Army has some of the top leading residency programs. He thought that a stint with the Army would be a good opportunity for his training.

Most of the reasons for which people like Chaudhary and Bose choose military are quite similar to the reasons for which other people choose professions like medicine, programming, law etc. They join the military because they find the opportunity appealing, they want to experience the life and the compensation packages are quite attractive in some shape or form.

Nice Perks And Benefits Don’t Hurt

Even though a career in the military conjures up thoughts and feelings of patriotism, saving lives and serving one’s country, it is still a career that must pay for one’s family and livelihood and the U.S. military has put together a package that appeals to these young people.

The U.S. Army says that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated the average active duty service member’s total compensation package is worth $99,000. Even though it contains 60% non-cash benefits, it is still a pretty good package.

Military has other inherent advantages too over civilian firms including the Montgomery GI Bill and the Army College Fund, which pay for more than $70,000 for tuition. For young students like Bose and Chaudhary Army’s offer to pay for medical, engineering, law or some other degree carries a lot of weight.

Bose, who was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and lived in the Chicago area, joined the Army reserves in the first year of his college in 1995. He did his residency at the Darnall Army Community Hospital, where he scored the highest average in the nation for the Emergency Medicine Residency exams.

Chaudhary grew up in the Fiji Island before his family immigrated to the USA in 1998. Now he is pursuing an electrical engineering degree in San Diego – expenses paid for by the Navy. He hopes to make a career as an electrical engineer either in the Navy or outside of it.

After 20 years of service Bains, a Foreign Officer in the Army, is still able to make use of its education benefit. He is

doing masters at the University of Texas, Austin in International Affairs. He expects to get posted at a U.S. embassy in the Defense Attaché offices.

To new immigrants military also offers fast track naturalization benefits. On July 3, 2002, President Bush signed an executive order that provides for "expedited naturalization" of non-citizen men and women serving on active-duty status since September 11, 2001. More than 15,000 have been able to use it to get their citizenship including Specialist Hatim Kathiria (see the side bar).

It is true that for many the money for college and faster naturalization has been major reasons, however, the military experience usually brings on deep feelings that changes the mindset, as Sergeant Mauli Patel, who enlisted when she was 17 and not a U.S. citizen wrote in an online chat forum, "I joined for college money, but never realized that I would be this patriotic toward the U.S. When I had a choice to go and fight for my country or stay back in the States. I could not see myself saying No. So, I went and I have never in my life done something more honorable."

Bains, whose parents were teachers in New Delhi, too had joined as a soldier for only two years but he liked it very much and excelled so well that he got three quick promotions within 22 months. He changed his mind, re-enlisted and went to Officers Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. Now after 20 years of service he doesn’t want to quit.

No Comparison To The Life In The Military

The reason for such change of heart is also not difficult to decipher. The military experience leaves an indelible impact that one just can not forget. Bains says that he will not exchange his army experience for even a job that pays million dollars and Prakash writes in an email from Iraq where he is doing his second tour of duty, "I love my job more than anything else."

The responsibility given to new recruits and the camaraderie within a unit are some of things that these people find unmatchable in the civilian world. "Folks can not imagine the kind of responsibility that you have", says Bains and then adds, "You feel like that there is no job out there that you can not do."

Most join the military in their late teens or early twenties. The military training shapes their lives with positive self-esteem and self confidence. Navy is Chaudhary’s first job and he is finding that the rules and regulations are enabling him to improve in various areas including work ethics and skills. At age 20 Sergeant Patel found herself in charge of a squad in 59th Chemical Company at Fort Drum, New York. Lt. Prakash is commanding a tank platoon in war time Iraq. In the mid 90’s Major Bains was commanding a Patriot missiles battery in Saudi Arabia. All say that military has made them a better person.

The sense of loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers is also incomparable. Sarah Walter, wife of Capt. Russell Walter, was impressed by Neil Prakash’s dedication to the soldiers of his unit when she spoke to him after he was awarded a Silver Star. He was the only one awarded the Silver Star since he was their leader but Ms. Walter remembers, "He always spoke of his solders’ bravery and never his own. He wanted THEM to get the glory, not himself. He’s uncomfortable getting too much praise for his deeds, which is exactly what makes him a hero in my opinion."

But It Ain’t Easy

"For me it was another job. I had various jobs and it was just a long term job", says Patel and then adds, "Now that I have been to Pakistan and Afghanistan served with people and lost some, Army has become a part of me."

Serving in the Army comes with its own perils. Three soldiers of South Asian origin – Sergeant Uday Singh, Captain Humayun Khan and Specialist Hatim Kathiria – have died in Iraq. This call of duty is not an easy thing for those serving and also for their family members. Almost two years after the death of their middle son, Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala are

still not able to put arms around their loss. He says that for the family the loss is devastating. Khan, a lawyer in Washington DC, proudly remembers the heroics of his son and how he helped the local Iraqis, who not only call him ‘Our Captain’ rather than an American soldier but also named the gate and a building in Baquba in his honor.

Sometimes one has to take a philosophical approach. Bose, who has also treated Saddam Hussein, had routinely cared for the U.S. soldiers, contractors, Iraqi civilians and enemies. He says, "It happened a lot like they bring a U.S. soldier who is dead and then they bring an injured prisoner who shot that soldier. As a doctor I have to treat all patients same as best as I can and not let emotions get in the way so I used to give medical treatment to all patients and let someone else figure out who is guilty and who is not."

For Bose life after Iraq has changed for good too. It was once in a life time situation as he says, "Nobody understands how tough it is there and then you come back here and you see people complain about things that you know are easy compared to what’s going on out there. It gives you a different perspective."

These feelings still come at different times too. Patel, who left the active duty in 2002 and is completing her Bachelor in Sciences in Nacogdoches, TX says, "When I turn on the TV when I see soldiers dying or soldiers helping there, it makes me feel that I am not doing my part right now." Patel, who has completed her one stint of active service duty and plans to rejoin the military in 2008 after completing her education, says that a part of her still feels that she should be doing more.

Then there is a question of recognition. In these highly charged atmosphere service men and women of the U.S. military do wonder whether their deeds are appreciated by others or not. During some of his recent trips to South Asian countries, Bains felt that around the globe there are misconceptions about the United States.

Prakash, whose wife is also stationed in Iraq, wonders, "In any given platoon, you’ll see all types of races – East Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, South Asians like me and this Pakistani soldier. I just wonder if someone observers that an Army made up of various races and nationalities – a war machine, a police force, a tool for diplomacy, and a peacekeeping unit all in one – is a perfect microcosm of democracy at work. Does that message ever get out to anyone? Does anyone notice this phenomenon?"

is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Mood Indico magazine, a niche publication for the affluent South Asians living in the north America


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