In 2012, I immigrated to the United States at age 24. I knew I was going to a whole new world, one that was markedly different from Jaipur, India, where I was born and raised.
America is a melting pot; as a Sikh, I was excited to share my culture with my new friends and neighbors. While I did not know exactly what the future would hold for me, I knew that I wanted to be true to the Sikh values of serving others and my country while fulfilling the Sikh tradition of serving in the armed forces. In 2014, I joined the U.S. Army.
I was first stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., after which I was stationed at Fort Lewis, just south of Tacoma, Wash., where I currently serve as an active-duty member of the Army.
For me, there was never any question on whether I was going to join the military. The values with which I was raised placed a strong emphasis of serving my community and those around me. These values are a core tenet of my religion: Sikhism, which is still not well known in the U.S.
To provide some background, Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion. It was established in India in the 16th century as a response to a cultural caste system, which had a rigid social structure that dictated how you were treated by society. Sikhism was founded, in part, to change that and to create equality and opportunity for all.
One of the ways Sikhs demonstrate their commitment to equality is by wearing the turban, a symbol that is often misconstrued as a symbol of extremism in the U.S. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sikh Americans wear the turban to demonstrate their commitment to equality and serving others. In fact, the turban symbolizes the same values that I defend as a member of the U.S. Army.
Approximately 600,000 Sikhs live in the U.S. and about 99 percent of the people seen wearing turbans in the U.S are Sikh. Yet a majority of Americans don’t know what Sikhism is and even more still have never interacted with a Sikh American. To help close this information gap, the National Sikh Campaign just launched We Are Sikhs, a new, national effort to help Americans better understand their Sikh American neighbors.
Until recently, Sikh men and women were not able to wear a turban while serving in the U.S. military, including myself. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army revised its regulations to allow servicemembers to wear a turban for religious reasons.
Due to the change in policy, I now wear my turban and beard with pride and I no longer have to choose between my country and my faith. This is a significant victory for Sikh Americans. I believe this will allow more Sikhs to continue the tradition of serving in the U.S. armed forces, which for Sikhs dates back to World War I.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. military is among the most diverse fighting forces in the world. Not only do my fellow soldiers fall across the socioeconomic spectrum, but our cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds are just as varied. There are very few places in the world that I can work alongside someone who could trace their ancestry back to the founding of the U.S. or share a bunk with someone who left his or her hometown for the first time to go to basic training.
The diverse culture of the U.S. military is what makes it unmatched around the world; our shared commitment to defending the United States, despite our differences, is what makes it great. I joined the U.S. Army to fulfill my desire and drive to serve my community. Even though I was not born in the United States, I know I am surrounded by soldiers — people — who share these feelings.
I am proud to be an American. I am even prouder to be a Sikh American. It is an honor to serve my fellow Americans in the U.S. Army.