Following in her Dad's Footsteps
- Sdni. Naureen Singh
In 1979, my father began an application to serve in the U.S. Army, a few short years after he immigrated to the United States. He didn’t look like a typical candidate for the Army by any means. He had a long beard and turban, as part of his Sikh identity, and joined with every expectation that the Army would reject his application. In the months that followed, the cards lined up, and he received word that he would be accepted as an officer with his turban and beard. He didn’t expect it to become a career and he had every intention of leaving after a few years. But when the U.S. Army changed it’s dress and appearance standards in the 1980s, now forbidding turbans and beards, he realized he had even more reason to stay. He had to stay and fight those standards and continue to show he loved this country just as much as the soldier next to him.
As a little girl growing up in a military town, I grew up quite different compared to a lot of other Sikh kids my age. As I watched my father tie his camouflage-colored turban before heading to work, I would sit there and admire his uniform. I didn’t know much of what the uniform meant, but I do vividly remember the pride he had on his face as he put it on every morning with a sense of duty and service. He ended up spending 29 years of his life doing just that. Not many people know his story, but he is the highest-ranking Sikh to serve active duty with a turban in the U.S Army. He paved the way not only for other Sikhs to join with their articles of faith intact, but other religious minorities wanting to serve this country.
As a military kid, I always thought of my father’s experience as “normal.” It wasn’t until I started hanging out with other Sikh kids at Gurmat camps that I realized I was the only one who had a parent serving in the U.S. military. I was always excited to share his story with them, distancing myself from it in many ways thinking it can never be part of mine. My life has come a long way since then, and about 3 years ago, I began thinking of a career in the armed forces more seriously. I, too, started the process, thinking that my application would be one that would be tossed out. However, as destiny would have it, the cards lined up for me too.
In August 2019, my recruiter asked me if I had a person in mind for who I wanted to give my initial oath of enlistment. I didn’t have to think twice, I wanted my father to be the one to give my oath of enlistment. As I stood, rose my right hand, and read the oath, it was an overwhelming rush of emotions, knowing I was continuing a tradition that my father fought so hard to even get his foot through the door.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the USA, I was scheduled to go to training in Montgomery, Alabama. The weeks leading up to it were stressful as I had no idea if the training would get canceled and I would have to wait months before another date. As life would have it, the training was deemed mission essential and I left into the unknown when it felt like the world around me was grappling with the new reality we were in.
The training was, at least for me, one of the best experiences of my life. It challenged me every waking moment, but it pushed me to develop a mentality that no matter how hard I might think something is, I can do it if I have the right mindset. As the weeks turned into months, we realized that a normal graduation was out of the question. We wouldn’t be able to have our loved ones be there with us as we commissioned, but we were offered to have someone virtually commission us. On May 22, 2020, I rose my right hand as my dad, virtually due to COVID-19, gave me the Officer Oath of Office for the U.S. Air Force. I was in the middle of a forest, surrounded by my friends from the training, when I earned my butter bars, and once I had a chance to collect myself after it happened, I broke down crying. Seeing my father’s expression as he commissioned me as an officer in the Air Force, was a similar one to he would have as he tied his turban before heading to work. It was truly, as cliche as this is, a feeling I can’t describe.
My journey has only just begun, but I hope that I can make my father proud knowing that his blood, sweat, and tears he poured into this for decades, that allowed me to join, is going to continue in our family. Diversity in anything is valuable, but I believe diversity in leadership allows us to grow, inspire, and motivate in ways we never thought was possible. I hope I can become that type of leader as I embark on my new career choice.