Posted by: Singh Is King | Saturday, August 4, 2007

Miss Singh in Action


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Miss Singh in Actionby KHUSHWANT SINGH

<!– August 1st, 2007–>

The following is one of the many stories that are to be found in Khushwant Singh’s new book, Sikhs Unlimited.

The only thing missing was the traditional dhol and the fanfare that one would associate with the reception of an eminent personality. Probably, it was held back somewhat because it was at Earlimart, their residence in the San Joaquin Valley, California.

Spirits were high, and the mood upbeat at the residence of Specialist Kaur of the Army National Guard of the United States of America.

Relatives from far away had planned visits to meet the great author; dinner invitations had been floated. After all, Khushwant Singh had bestowed honour on the Nijjar household by desiring to stay with the family and interview nineteen-year-old Ranbir, the first Sikh woman to join the U.S. Army.

Out of 200,000 women in the U.S. armed services and 150,000 serving in the National Guard and Reserves, Ranbir Kaur, daughter of a Sikh-American grape grower, taking up the M-16 rifle at the tender age of seventeen, had become huge news.

Did I see a jaw drop when Mahan Singh, Ranbir Kaur’s father, came to pick me up from Sherman Oaks near L.A.? I’m sure it did, when he saw a lean man in his early thirties, black-bearded, minus the turban, walk up to him and introduce himself.

Tusi Khushwant Singh?”, he asked in some disbelief.

“Yes”, I had replied, understanding the situation. The old man, the famous Indian author Khushwant Singh, had yet again interfered in my life. I had just about rid myself of his ghost before leaving India, where I had been virtually accused of siphoning his payments from the BBC. The matter, however, was sorted out amicably, with the BBC clarifying the situation to him.

Forty-six-year-old Mahan Singh, a Sikh who had only recently taken his initiation into the Khalsa, nevertheless camouflaged his disappointment well. He welcomed me as he would have my namesake. Relatives had also poured in and withstood the shock.

It took us about three hours to reach Earlimart, after driving through the varied landscapes of the State of California and a brief stop at Mahan Singh’s newly acquired 160-acre raisin farm at Irvine.

Earlimart, about forty miles from Bakersfield, is a dusty burg of about 6,500 people. The house is nestled in the countryside and houses twelve family members.

Mahan Singh and Gurjit Kaur have two daughters and a son, respectively, Ranbir (20), Sharanjit (15), and Amandeep (21). Mahan Singh’s elder brother, Harjinder Singh, who is a truck driver, his wife, two sons and two daughters also live there. And last, but most importantly, seventy-five-year-old Gurdev Kaur, Ranbir’s grandmother, who freaks out on Hindi soaps.

“Yeah, this one is real good”, is her critical comment on each soap. In short, the entire clan from Nijjran in Jalandhar district of Punjab has relocated to America.

And, as we sipped tea in the living room, we were joined by a young, slim, attractive girl – gorgeous eyes and long eyelashes. Her head was covered with a scarf, and her face was freckled with remnants of her teenage acne.

She was Ranbir Kaur of the 315th Engineers – now 315th SECFOR – on her way to war-torn Afghanistan for an eighteen-month mission, beginning in January 2006. Protecting airports, the streets of Kabul, as well as its heritage and religious buildings, would be one of the foremost duties of her unit. Her demure appearance and permanent smile hardly revealed that she would soon be airborne, to the land where much blood had been shed as a result of decades of hostilities.

Initially recruited to be a supply clerk in the Iraq war – since women were not sent to the front-line – Ranbir’s job profile has kept changing from time to time. In Afghanistan, she would be dealing with the bloody insurgency that is spread all over the country.

Ranbir’s joyful personality had immediately made me feel guilty, as I remembered how, not too long before, I had cursed her for a trivial reason. News regarding her joining the U.S. Army had flooded the Indian newspapers and, one day, I discovered her in a box in one of my stories! And I had cursed this silly girl’s news for cutting into my story – not realizing that destiny would soon bring us face to face.

Now, as she sat before me, I realized how immortal these young people are, as opposed to us petty-thinking journalists: they lay down their lives in split seconds for their nation … Of course, whether the cause is legitimate or not, the debate goes on.

“You are not the only one who cursed me”, chuckled Ranbir, adding salt to the wound.

“Why, did you eat into somebody else’s space too?”, I asked.

“Not really”, she replied, “except that the world didn’t like a brown-skinned girl joining the U.S. Army”.

Hate mails and spam had been posted on the web, shouting abuse and accusing her of joining the Army just to get U.S. citizenship. A newspaper that carried a huge article in March 2005 – almost two years after Ranbir joined the National Guard – had received letters condemning it for using a woman’s picture just to boost sales.

“Dad, when did I get my citizenship?”, Ranbir asked her father.

“Much before you joined the army”, replied Mahan Singh, his accent still heavily Punjabi. During the three-hour drive from Sherman Oaks, Mahan Singh had actually updated me on his struggle to reach the U.S. and how he had undertaken various adventurous journeys before finally achieving his American dream, that eventually led to citizenship in 1996. He visited Nigeria, Austria, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland and France through the early 1980’s, looking for greener pastures, but had to return to his village after his father’s death.

In 1985, with Ranbir still in his wife’s womb, Mahan Singh again left for Mexico on a business visa. He gained entry into the U.S. in the late 1980’s and got his temporary residence in 1989, after which he visited his family in India after a four-year gap. He got his green card in 1990 and his family joined him in the U.S. in 1993.

“Oh, did he bore you with that same old story?”, asks Ranbir. “Papaji, stop it – will you spare somebody that story?”

Coming to her father’s rescue, I immediately claimed to have enjoyed it thoroughly, although I was quite familiar with the huge risks Punjabi men took to reach greener pastures, since I have extensively covered the Doaba, the land between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, in Punjab.

“I was so upset that I questioned myself, whether I had joined the forces for this kind of treatment. But then, I’m me and I do what I got to do”.

This was endorsed during each of the three days that I spent with Ranbir. “If I gotta go, I’m gonna go”, is another of her favourite lines, when asked if she is scared of going to Afghanistan.

“If death does not deter me, nothing else can”, said Ranbir, her statement generating a sudden lull in the room.

The silence was broken by Gurjit Kaur – I wasn’t sure how much English she understood – as she announced lunch. We all got up and walked to the nearby dining table, where steel cutlery – usually used in gurdwaras for community meals – had been laid out. Freshly made hot rotis, daubed with butter, kept piling up, and I could hear the familiar clapping sound of roti-making come from one corner of the kitchen.

It is a norm within this household that Gurjit Kaur makes fresh rotis and eats her meal only after having served everybody.

Soon after lunch, Mahan Singh showed me my room, especially done up for old people, in anticipation of the elderly Khushwant Singh. A group photograph of the family hung on the wall and a picture of Ranbir in her olive green gear with soot marks on her face, lay next to a desktop computer.

“Anything I can get you?”, asked Ranbir as she peeped in.

“Come in”, I said.

“Nice picture”, I commented. “The automatic weapon looks awesome”.

“Oh yeah. This one was taken at the Annual Training”, said Ranbir.

Ranbir Kaur’s tryst with the uniform dates back as far as 2001, when she was a freshman (ninth grade) in high school, Delano High, about eight miles away from their isolated residence.

She would see uniformed soldiers from different services – including the Army, Marines, the Air Force and the Navy – standing outside the career centre of the school, distributing fliers to students, encouraging them to join the defence forces.

She would hang out with them during lunch break, chatting about their career, till one day, during her sophomore year, in October 2002, while she was sitting alone, the marching soldiers had suddenly made her come to a new realization. “Oh my god – this is what I want to do, this is what I’m gonna do!”, she had said to herself.

On reaching home from school, Ranbir had immediately started searching in the Yellow Pages and called the Bakersfield recruiting centre, who asked her to get in touch with her county office in Tulare.

Ranbir soon came in contact with 1st Class Sergeant Reymundo. The sergeant asked Ranbir her age and since she was only sixteen, told her she could not enlist till she had turned seventeen. He suggested she contact them about ten days before her seventeenth birthday.

An anxious Ranbir waited till January 2003 and called the sergeant again. “It never crossed my mind that I would be deployed for war. I just wanted to be a soldier and that’s it. I didn’t think they would ever send me to war”.

“You’re ready”, said Sergeant Reymundo over the phone and was soon at Ranbir’s house to speak to her parents, as they were required to sign off on the documentation. Ranbir, who always wanted to be a nurse, had gradually prepared her family about her new career move.

The Afghanistan war was on and Iraq was heating up. “I will be a nurse in the military”, she had told her father, as he was keen she did something in the medical field. At Delano High, she had enrolled herself in the health academy, a three-year programme for students who wanted to take up medicine as a career.

Everything was set – seventeen-year-old Ranbir, two days after her birthday, under a six-year contract with the Army National Guard, was taking an oath in Los Angeles to defend the mightiest nation on Earth, the United States of America.

The reality of war had not dawned upon this teenage girl as yet. She was still under the impression that since she had two years of high school left, they would take her nowhere, after which she would complete her college. Training, however had begun.

To start with, Ranbir was assigned to the 349 Quarter Master Company and would undergo training for one weekend every month. Her leadership qualities immediately showed up and the officers slowly started honing her skills, asking her to lead about a hundred soldiers – even though she was one of them.

For example, she would be the last one to eat her meal because she had to ensure that no one remained hungry. Always humble, Ranbir says that she missed out being led by another soldier who was the same rank as her. Which doesn’t come as a surprise, given her farmer/soldier blood!

June came around. Ranbir completed her eleventh grade and during the two-month summer vacation, she was dispatched to South Carolina for a nine-week basic training.

Though slightly nervous on the airplane, thinking about all the yelling, the pushups and sit-ups, Ranbir landed thinking it was just going to be like any another summer camp. Apparently, her wide smile was turned on all the time, despite being warned by Sergeant Reymundo not to become the centre of attraction.

“Get your shit, go, go, go!”, yelled a sweaty sergeant on arriving at the airport. “If you think this is summer camp, you guys are mistaken. You are here to be soldiers and get that smile off your face!”

So Ranbir had got her first wake-up call. Her two months were spent training hard, concentrating on physical fitness, discipline, handling weapons, learning the art of combat and the march past, though most of the stuff, Ranbir discovered, was for nothing.

She learnt her first military phrase – “Hurry up and wait”, which, in her words, meant, “Hurry up, sit down and do nothing”.

“You couldn’t even talk or raise your head while eating meals at the Chow Hall (cafeteria). If you talked or raised your head, it meant you weren’t hungry, so no food. Ironically, if you spoke softly and the lady serving you failed to hear your food preference, she would shout back – “Can’t you be loud enough?”

But such are the ways of the military. The first time Ranbir handled an M-15, she thought it was a fake, until she fired her first shot from a foxhole. Imagine pressing the trigger with both eyes closed and feeling the recoil, since you haven’t placed the gun butt firmly enough on your shoulder.

By now, I have shot almost every U.S. weapon, added Ranbir. She loves flinging live grenades from the trenches, even though her first throw was a disaster, because she had tossed it too close.

Her worst experience was the gas chamber, as she found it difficult to regulate her breathing, inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose. The nausea and the burning of the skin was horrible; “I hated it”, she said.

She missed home and Punjabi food and used to cry when alone. Nine weeks passed with mixed experiences, but it established one fact – Ranbir was tough.

On the sidelines, Private Ranbir was nicknamed “Private Smiley” by her comrades.

She, along with two other women soldiers, all of different ethnicities, conferred the title, “The Killer Killer Sisters” upon themselves. One of her newly acquired kin, at the end of the training, wrote:

“Dear Miss in Action!

“I really enjoyed being your roommate, you goofy, crazy ass. Go home with your head up and proud because you’ve been through and accomplished a lot with me. You should be proud of yourself and go back to school and kill with no mercy and may the turf of happiness rest on your head, you ‘Killer Killer'”.

The reality of war still hadn’t struck the teenager. Ranbir was happy to be home and resumed normal life. She completed her last year at high school and her training was now up to one week a month. Many times, her seniors advised her to cut her hair for convenience, but the gritty Ranbir stuck to her bun.

One of the tests she faced at the basic training was a sixty-mile walk in the jungle, where they camped for three nights and four days, with no showers and only baby wipes. With bugs in her hair, it was a challenge to maintain her long tresses.

The most trying moment for the family came when Mahan Singh suffered a massive heart attack at Christmas of the same year. Early one morning, he had to be rushed to the hospital. “Take care of everything, if anything happens to me”, Mahan Singh told Ranbir.

She cried, holding her father’s hand. Momentarily, the soldier in her was lost.

There was a lull in our conversation for the second time as Ranbir broke down while narrating the incident. Life for the Nijjars had changed. Ranbir, and her older brother, Amandeep, had a new role to play, for the doctor had advised Mahan Singh to avoid strenuous work.

The farmlands are now managed by Amandeep, but what the American doctor failed to realize was that Punjabis lust for desi ghee. Its aroma still fills the air at mealtimes, though Mahan Singh is now more cautious in his dietary habits.

It was about five in the evening and we were joined by Mahan Singh to ask us if we wanted tea. We refused and he sat down to join in the conversation. I could see that her father’s presence made Ranbir uneasy and she changed the topic.

I requested Mahan Singh to leave us alone, and he obligingly heeded the request, asking if I wanted to join him for a walk later in the evening.

Since Ranbir had opted for split training service, her advanced individual training (AIT) would be the following year.

In 2004, with two promotions already under her belt, Ranbir went to Virginia at Fort Lee as Private 1st Class for fourteen weeks for AIT.

“You go for your MOS, meaning you get trained for your job”, said Ranbir. “It was a lot of fun, as there was more freedom. We could go out on certain weekends, make calls home and the atmosphere was more relaxed, as by now our instructors knew we were soldier material”.

The “chickens” had been sifted out at the basic training; however, the reality of war still eluded Ranbir.

Then came the Annual Training (AT), that is occasional and not actually an annual feature. The three-week training in June 2005 posed Ranbir with fresh challenges as she had to grapple with gossip, as well as resist the temptation of alcohol and smoking. “I’m known for my power to say no to these substances”.

Her cultural differences, spirited way of life and friendly demeanour were misunderstood. Fellow women were a permanent source of trouble. “If I didn’t eat non-vegetarian food, they would say I’m trying to get weak physically so that I don’t get deployment. Women will be women, cribbers and jealous kittens to the hilt!”, exclaimed Ranbir.

“In Punjab, we call it the chik chik woman”, I replied. [No gender bias, I assure you!]

Since Ranbir could not get along with women soldiers, her being chosen as Acting First Sergeant during her training sent further waves of jealousy among them.

It disturbed Ranbir, after which she wrote a long letter to her First Sergeant, Michael Betzale, about her tough times as well as seeking permission from him to discuss it with me, as she wanted to vent her feelings. In her letter, she promised to be a less friendly person, showing the gussa-sardarni-da (“the ire of a Sikhni”).

The First Sergeant, trying to placate the grieving soldier, in his reply wrote: “We’re all different in one way or the other. Most people have an opinion and most of them are wrong. With that in mind, SPC Kaur, you don’t need to change who you are – friendly or not – because what of others may say. I think you will be just fine the way you are. Let other soldiers struggle in their weaknesses to understand and accept, but not to distract or detour you from being yourself. I do not know much of your culture or religion, but I respect and support your commitment. SPC Kaur, you have a strong desire to succeed and I admire that”.

“I’m a different person now”, explains Ranbir. “In spite of the struggles, I’m just focussed on my upcoming assignment. I can shoot like any other soldier, big deal”.

It was dinner time and as we headed to the dining table, Ranbir invited me to visit her room. Her certificates – including the one from the Lieutenant Governor of California – carefully framed, adorned the wall.

“My sister calls it the conceited wall. I love to play tennis”, she added.

By the time I woke up, Ranbir had left for the doctor’s clinic in Delano where she worked as a part-time assistant with Dr. Manbir Singh. I was informed by Mahan Singh that we would be joining Ranbir for lunch at Bakersfield, where one of her teachers, Ms. Meeta Dhaliwal, Professor of Sociology and Behaviour Sciences of Bakersfield College, wanted to meet me.

During our meeting at a coffee shop, Ms. Dhaliwal pronounced Ranbir as an extraordinary child. Ranbir’s recruitment in the National Guard had profiled the Sikh community in a positive manner. Her joining the Army meant that Sikh girls were encouraged by their families to take up professional jobs. Moreover, it established a Sikh-American’s loyalty to the nation-home he or she has adopted. Ranbir’s courage and determination had further established what mettle Sikh women were made of, Ms. Dhaliwal felt.

Post-lunch, Ranbir took me to Bakersfield College and showed me around where she was studying, specializing in the social sciences.

It was evening by the time we reached home where a voice message awaited Ranbir: “Private Specialist Ranbir Kaur, you are on call for Louisiana at Homeland Security Office to move to New Orleans”.

Hurricane Katrina had struck the city of New Orleans, leaving a trail of mass destruction which even the ever-powerful America had found difficult to handle. Hundreds of human lives had been lost and thousands had been rendered homeless in the aftermath. Property worth billions had been destroyed after the city was flooded.

The call also meant that Ranbir would not go to Afghanistan, as she could only have one deployment. The family heaved a sigh of relief.

Ranbir was also not averse to the idea because it meant helping fellow human beings in a harsh natural tragedy. There was no violence involved, yet the challenge remained similar – restoring normalcy to the battered city of New Orleans, where looting and arson had erupted, following immense hunger and poverty.

Ranbir immediately got into action, getting her stuff ready, for the call could come anytime. I spent my time booking my tickets for my departure the next day to San Diego for my project.

During the balance of my stay in the U.S., I learnt that Ranbir was again assigned to be in Afghanistan and probably would be on active duty by the time this book went to press. But at the same time, without being in New Orleans, Ranbir had rendered a great service to the Sikh community by helping to recover the Guru Granth Sahib, when the New Orleans Gurdwara was submerged in water.

Sikhs sought her assistance to hire the rescue services of SRT – a private helicopter and special response and training company in California – to launch the operation. It took three days to obtain clearance from different agencies before the SRT could access the flood-affected area. Ranbir got everybody moving, when she announced that the Sikh Scriptures were under water.

Amidst random shootings, Air Force rescue experts David Cruz and Tom Bausmas of SRT removed the scriptures in an operation that lasted twenty-two hours. Sikhs all over the country were grateful to Ranbir.

Postscript: In March 2006, Ranbir landed at Kabul in Afghanistan where she was put on active duty, patrolling religious institutions. Back in the U.S. now, Ranbir is heading for Iraq shortly.

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