In my first year of college, I took a step into the unknown and joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) of the U.S. Army. Now, as a rising senior, I have been reflecting on my decision to pursue military service. While I was drawn to the idea of service at a young age, I did not know in what form I would serve. Before college, I never really saw myself as a Soldier nor did I really understand what military service was. Army service can be unfamiliar territory for a lot of Americans, and even more so for Indian Americans. Now that I see myself as a Soldier, I want to expand the horizon of careers that Indian Americans consider to include military service.
I want Indian Americans to step beyond their potential reservations and understand the intrinsic value of military service. In anticipation of commissioning into the service upon graduation, I sought out Indian American Army service members and Veterans (Enlisted, Non-commissioned Officers, and Officers) and engaged in meaningful conversations with them. My rationale was to understand Army service in the context of my own upbringing, and in that journey, I spoke with service members of diverse backgrounds, all of whom enriched my perspective with a deeper understanding of military service. Indian American service members belong to a history of Asian Indian participation in the Profession of Arms. Through these conversations and my own ROTC experiences, I have come to realize that uniformed service is a rare and valuable American experience: one with no counterpart in the civilian world; one that develops the individual in service of the nation.
ROTC was uncharted territory for both my family and me because we knew no one in our immediate circle who had served in the military. Being a Midwesterner of Indian descent, military service was just not common. I grew up in a quintessential American suburb where the civil-military divide was more than evident. In my high school class of over 1,200 students, only around 20 planned to join the military upon graduation. While 1.6% is a tiny fraction, that is still triple the proportion of Americans in the military. On top of that, military service was unfamiliar to my mom, because members of my extended family engaged in banking, civil service, farming, and other non-military professions. Modern India gained her independence from oppressive colonial occupation largely through non-violence and civil disobedience. India derives her uniquely peaceful character from ahimsa (non-violence), a pillar of Hinduism.
While the world regards India as the birthplace of non-violence, it is remarkable to note that war plays a central role in Hinduism’s great epic, the Mahabharata. In fact, the sacred Bhagavad Gita (the Divine Song) is a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna on the battlefield. Ancient Indian society has always highly regarded warriors and statesmen, and in more recent history, the famous warrior Queen, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi valiantly fought the British with her infant son strapped to her back and died on the battlefield.
Indian Americans can proudly look back on this military tradition, which is one part of India’s rich history. Then the military will not be so distant to our world view. I never connected the dots between the military and myself because the idea of joining the military was so removed from my world.
However, when I came to college, I met students who excelled in academics in addition to their ROTC requirements. While I had a strong internal drive to join ROTC, I could better envision myself in the program after I saw two Cadets of Indian origin in the program already. I was more inspired when I later read a book on the Iraq War and came across the name of an Indian American ROTC graduate, who was commended for exhibiting valor in combat. I finally connected the dots and realized my aspiration lay in the Army. Since I considered ROTC after starting college, I overcame the initial challenges of navigating the program and bringing my physical fitness up to standard. The ROTC program offers identical scholarship and non-scholarship tracks, and I stepped into the latter, first trying out the program for a semester before making the decision to contract.
It is hardly a surprise that my decision was met by my mom’s disbelief, and I learned that parents of Indian Americans had similar reactions even after years of their child’s service. This feeling is attributable to one main factor: for a variety of reasons, the Profession of Arms is a career that Indian Americans typically do not consider.
However, seeing our commitment, those Indian Americans’ parents and mine put their support and love behind us. Our parents gained confidence with familiarity, and they came to recognize the positives that the military cultivates in us. The Army is a mission driven organization, and it fulfills a purpose for American society. Duty and honor occupy the heart of how the Army operates and thinks. The Army is an institution built on seven values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage (LDRSHIP). Soldiers are expected to embody these values and accomplish the mission. Just as strict personal discipline, self-control, and adherence to values have been key to my faith and upbringing, they are core to the Army’s mindset and operation.
To develop Soldiers who live by the Army Values and accomplish the mission, the Army invests in its individuals. The Indian American Soldiers I spoke with highlighted being pushed to build character, being challenged to maintain physical readiness standards, and being entrusted with immense responsibility only a handful of years out of college. The Army trains and trains so that Soldiers develop quick critical thinking skills and know how to execute. Soldiers learn to operate within defined limits and complex operational environments, and how to work with others in high-pressure situations. These skills that the Army develops in individuals stay with Soldiers for the rest of their personal and professional lives. Since the Army operates and invests in its people in a way unique from private industries, individuals with military experience make smart hires when they apply for civilian jobs.
Lastly, the Indian American Soldiers I spoke with believed the most beautiful aspect of Army service is its universal experience. As the Army recently noted, it is a microcosm of American society in all its positives and negatives, including racism. In speaking with Indian American service members, I expected to find that they had faced significant challenges to their identity and/or faith. Yet, it seemed that Indian Americans have felt less prejudice in the Army than they feel in the rest of society today.
As an organization that studies and publishes its own history, the Army is self-conscious and explicit about its relationship with diversity. I gathered from my conversations with Indian American service members that regardless of a Soldier’s identity, the Army eventually boils down to merit: an individual’s ability to lead and be a Soldier. Indian Americans could recount instances of discriminatory remarks, but the frequency of these instances seemed higher decades ago than in recent times. However, they felt that at the end of the day, the Army as an institution saw everyone as Green. They saw their time in the military as a universal Army experience, not as an Indian American Army experience. They identified as an American Soldier before they did an Indian American Soldier.
So, while the military remains a microcosm of America, aspects of it seem to have confronted issues such as racism in ways that have led to significant progress. In a class I took on race in America, the professor cited the military as the exemplar organization for having overcome discrimination better than other sub-organizations of American society. Those I spoke with recounted that the most refreshing part of their service was being part of an organization where hard work and diligence is what matters most.
In 2020, with the conversation of racial identity at the forefront, I want Indian Americans to be able to see themselves as Soldiers. There is an intrinsic strength to military service that sets it apart from the conventional fields that Indian Americans pursue such as business, information technology, medicine, and law. Our identity and aspirations as Indian Americans can harmonize with an Army career. My Army experience, while in its infancy, resonates with my Indian American upbringing and faith. I have found that it develops and challenges me in ways unique to the military — ways I have never been challenged in academics, sports, research, music, or internships. I was moved that the Indian American Soldiers who have come before me found their calling in Army service and that they were so willing to mentor and speak with me. While they have left me big boots to fill, I am lucky to follow in the footsteps of these Indian American service members, fulfilling a desire to serve, develop, and be a part of something bigger than myself.
Gayatri Balasubramanian is a member of the Class of 2021 at Harvard College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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