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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"