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In the Line of Fire

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May 2003
In the Line of Fire

By ASHISH KUMAR SEN

Sarada Nair has never really regretted her son?s decision to join the Marines. She just wishes he had a less dangerous profession.

Poor eyesight may have prevented Sharad Nair from realizing his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, but it didn?t stop the young man from signing up with the Marines. The 22-year-old Marine reservist?s mother spent an agonizing time trying to get her son to change his mind. ?But there is a limit to which you can dissuade your children from doing what they are really passionate about,? she says.

Yet she didn?t realize the distinctiveness of her family until a conversation with a colleague at her Manhattan office. ?My friend pointed out that most Indians in America are either doctors or computer professionals. Not many Indian American parents can say their kid is a US Marine,? Nair says proudly.

A number of Indian American families have had to come to terms with the changing interests of the new generation, as their children dream of pursuing careers in the Armed Forces. Many are breaking the mold and steering clear of traditional professions ? medicine, engineering, finance and even information and technology; normally the professions that Indian parents actively encourage their children to pursue.

Captain Varun Puri of Goldsboro, N.C., says his family didn?t know what to make of his decision to join the Air Force. As a child he often dreamt of becoming an astronaut. He now teaches aspiring pilots how to fly the F-15E ? the Air Force?s Strike Eagle ? at the Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Noting that there are very few Indian Americans currently serving in the Air Force, Puri adds, ?Over the past 8 to 10 years that I?ve been here, I have come to know at least five Indian pilots. The interest is growing slowly.?

Agrees Captain Ravi Chaudhary, ?It?s starting to get more and more commonplace for Indian Americans to be in the Armed Forces.? A C-17 pilot and a flight commander of a squadron flying out of Charleston Air Force Base, Chaudhary says he can?t really think back to a day when he didn?t want to be in the Air Force. ?I?ve had a burning desire to serve my country since I was a child.?

Service to country is a mantra that seems to run in the Chaudhary family. Ravi?s elder brother, Satveer, is a Democrat State Senator in Minnesota. ?We were always proud of Ravi?s service to our country,? says Senator Chaudhary.

?I?ve had unwavering support from my family,? adds Ravi. ?It was pretty much accepted that my life would have something to do with aerospace. However, sending me off to the USAF Academy left a bit of the unknown for all of us to guess!?

Like Nair, Corporal Jimmy Paul always wanted to be a Marine. ?It?s a career he chose for himself,? says his mother Thankam Paul, a pre-school teacher in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Like his son, Dr Panavelil Paul was once keen to join the Indian Army. ?For us (a career in the Armed Forces) is just another career. The bottom line is that Jimmy should be happy,? he says matter-of-factly.

Growing up in Minnesota, Anoop Prakash got involved in the military after a Marine recruiter came to his high school and encouraged him to enroll for the ROTC training program. He applied and got a four-year scholarship.

Greatly impressed by the Marines, Prakash wanted nothing more than to attain the presence and strength of leadership associated with them. His chemist father and physician mother didn?t know what to make of their son?s interest. ?My family was very hesitant. Their first concern was ?What sort of career will you have???

Though the percentage of Indian Americans serving in the Armed Forces is small, they have been making their presence felt. Puri says Indians have earned the respect of their colleagues in the Air Force.

One of the few Indian Americans in the U.S. Marines, Prakash says he never faced any racial discrimination. ?For us the only color was green (the color of their uniform); the only issue was to be able to pronounce each other?s names correctly,? he comments with a smile.

A former Captain in the Marine Corps, Prakash is familiar with the stresses and strains that come with war. He remembers a tense time from when he served in the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s, as an intelligence officer for the Marine Helicopter Squadron with the 24th Expeditionary Unit on board the USS Guam.

Operational mode brings limitations on communication between families. ?You can only tell them how you?re doing. The most you can say about your location is, ?Somewhere in the Gulf?,? laughs Prakash. His parents learnt of their son?s deployment through television. ?It was tough on them. Even my relatives in India were watching the news very carefully,? he says.

Service families accept the uncertainty and need for secrecy as part of the deal. Chaudhary?s wife Uma says, ?Ravi and I talk about things, but he can?t tell me much. I often don?t know where he?s going.?

Like many children, two-year-old Krishan Chaudhary has his bedtime stories read to him by his father ? on video. Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar are some of his favorites.

To cope with the long periods of separation, the Chaudharys have put together an ?emergency packet? for their son that includes a videotape of Ravi reading Krishan?s favorite books, singing his favorite songs, or just talking to him.

?We have been at war from the second that first aircraft hit the World Trade Center,? says Chaudhary. ?The day that happened, I sat down with Uma and Krishan and let them know that things were going to change for a little while, and that this might be the biggest challenge our family may ever have to face.?

Since the Iraq crisis flared he has once again asked them to ?hang on a little longer.? And that?s exactly what they are still doing. o


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