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Military Cadets of a Different Kind

November 2008
Military Cadets of a Different Kind

Gujarati businessman (or woman) may be a cliché. But a Gujarati brother-sister duo in the Armed Forces? That’s the inspiring, off-the-beaten-track story of Samir and Ami Patel, cadets at West Point, which is considered America’s most prestigious military academy.

By Deepa Agarwal

To pick a four-year undergraduate college and make the subsequent career choice can be a daunting task for most students. If the U.S. Census Bureau is anything to go by, very few students, and indeed even fewer Indian-American students contemplate a career in the armed forces. According to the 2004 census report, “We the People: Asians in the United States,” while a significant percentage of Asian-Indians (almost 64 percent) do get a bachelor’s degree, most of them (almost 60 percent) opt for a career in the management and professional fields.

“Watching each other’s back” and “dying for your buddy in the battlefield” are really not the skills that teenagers are looking to acquire from their alma mater—and that is why the story of the brother-sister duo, Samir Patel and Ami Patel, is so compelling.

Samir just graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point while Ami has just finished her first year there. “I had always desired more from my college education than just academics,” says Samir.

Tarun Patel, Samir and Ami’s father, remembers being shocked when he first heard about Samir’s decision to go to West Point. “I had heard of West Point and knew it was a good school, so I was happy that my kids had such high goals. But, no doubt, I was worried too. I wasn’t sure that he knew what he was getting into,” says Mr. Patel.

But Samir had done his homework well. “I came across the West Point Web site when I was in the 10th grade and I was completely impressed. I kept going back to it for the next six months and that’s when I realized that this is for me, that traditional education would just not be enough,” he adds.

Ami, on the other hand, didn’t really think about West Point until Samir went there. “Frankly, I was even more surprised when Ami chose West Point. She had seen Samir go through the intense training and so we assumed that she wouldn’t opt for West Point. But we are proud that she did and know that she will do very well,” says Mr. Patel.

“The U.S. Army is more diverse than any other army or even any other profession, really. As an organization, it’s well run and there are plenty of opportunities for everyone. Therefore, from a professional standpoint, I think it is as good a career as any,” emphasizes Ami.

In junior high, Ami was invited to participate in a weeklong Summer Leaders Seminar at West Point where she not only attended academic workshops but also underwent military and physical fitness training. “It’s a very good program where you actually get to see what it’s really like. After the program, my mind was made up. I wanted to be in an environment where I was constantly being pushed and could learn something,” says Ami.

The first military post and the oldest military academy in the country, West Point is one of the top 10 colleges in the United States per this year’s Forbes magazine. With an acceptance rate of about 12 percent, it is one of the harder colleges to get into, demanding a certain level of physical fitness, a recommendation from a congressman or state senator and a commitment to a life in the armed forces, in addition to academic distinction.

Life at West Point, as Samir observes, is like drinking from a fire hose. “I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be,” he confesses. “So much is thrown at you that you have to motivate yourself to accomplish the tasks and develop the ability to handle a lot of things simultaneously.”

Ami, who had just returned from military training, affirms. “In the beginning I struggled. It is physically very demanding since you are expected to be on par with the boys. But once you get over those initial few months, you are okay.”

“The first summer at West Point, you are introduced to various aspects of military training such as patrolling, marksmanship, and land navigation. You build on those skills every following summer. This past month I learned to use weapons in different environments such as urban and mountain. We lived in the woods, patrolled and took turns being in leadership roles,” she further adds.

And was there ever a weak moment? A moment when she faltered and felt like quitting? A moment when she experienced prejudice because of her gender? “No, not really. Even when things really suck, your friends help you hang on,” she admits with a smile.

“As far as the issue of prejudice against women in the army goes, things are a lot different today than they were say 20 years ago. There are thousands of women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In fact the army just promoted Lt. Gen. Ann Dunwoody as the next commander, U.S. Army Material Command. She is the highest-ranking woman in the history of U.S. army,” she asserts.

Samir, who led a platoon of first year students this summer, talks about the cross-training that is a part of the curriculum. “You build on your skills by going to other army schools. During my third year I trained at the Army Mountain Warfare School and learned how to conduct mountain operations, and in the summer of my fourth year I went to the Air Assault School, where I learnt how to jump out of helicopters and slide down a rope. The training at Mountain Warfare School in Vermont was the hardest I have undertaken so far. Everyday was physically grueling; we walked for about 4-5 miles uphill with 60-pound-rucksacks, and set up our ropes. Learning such complex rope systems under that kind of exhaustion can be really taxing.”

Samir, who still has some special training left, will be deployed some time next year to Iraq, which he is ready for. “That’s what West Point does, it gives you the basic skill set to survive,” he emphasizes.

But really, is that basic skill set enough? From what we have seen, it clearly wasn’t enough in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because wars today are distinctly different from those fought in the last century. According to experts, the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq are classic examples of unconventional wars. There are no armies to wage war against, and you are fighting a hidden enemy that has the tacit support of the local population and uses guerrilla tactics to tire out the opponent. These wars are as much about winning the hearts and minds of people as they are about learning counter-insurgency tactics. Soldiers are not only expected to drive away insurgents but also start drives to get soccer balls. It makes one wonder if training in conventional warfare would really suffice in today’s wars.

“Well, most soldiers are trained for a conventional fight and as you rightly point out, it’s no longer a regular war,” agrees Samir. “Warfare nowadays, as my instructors say, is 10 percent combat and 90 percent everything else. The leaders and army generals understand that we need to develop a mindset in irregular warfare to win these unconventional wars. But the army is a huge organization and to move some 400,000 people in that direction takes time and it’s particularly difficult to do that in the middle of a war.

“The good thing though is that West Point is constantly adapting. We now receive counter-insurgency training. We have classes geared towards developing our ability for providing social, economic and political support, rather than just military. During our military training we are presented with situations that the army has encountered in Iraq. Ami adds, “The best part of the military training is actually talking to the soldiers who have just returned from a deployment.”

Samir even had the opportunity to meet with General David Petraeus. “He is a West Point graduate and a very intelligent man. He is also one of the fittest persons I have met. He challenges cadets and commanders to do push-ups right there and he is in dress-up uniform,” exclaims Samir in admiration.

The success of the surge has done a wealth of good to the morale of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Ami observes how most of them talk about things changing for the better in Iraq and how they have come back with a better cultural understanding of the people and the region.

In order to help students understand cultures and peoples around the world, the Academy encourages students to participate in its study-abroad and military exchange programs with countries from Chile to China. As part of the military exchange program, Samir went to Jordan and India. He also spent some time in Egypt during a study-abroad program.

“I spent about 10 days in India and Jordan and got to see how foreign militaries train. For example, in India, they have a British system. The relationship between officers is a lot more rigid and the military customs are very formal. The American system, on the other hand, is a little more relaxed.”

“Egypt was one of the best experiences in my life. It helped me improve my Arabic language skills enormously. I met so many interesting people and had engaging discussions about American foreign policy and Egypt’s political landscape, where Hosni Mubarak has been ‘elected’ for the last 25 years. While most Egyptians like regular Americans, they are very opinionated about American foreign policy. Most, for example, do not see the connection between Iraq and the war on terror.”

For the next six months Samir will be training at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Knox in Kentucky. Ami goes back to West Point to begin her second year there. Both believe that the training they have received so far has prepared them to handle both political and military situations with equal ease.

Tarun Patel beams: “West Point is a great institution. My wife and I are concerned about Samir and Ami but we know that they are trained well enough to take care of themselves. Indeed, we are very proud of them.”

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