Geena Kaur serves as a Second Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy.
In today's politically charged and increasingly globalized world, it's more important than ever to be open to the beliefs and cultures of those around you. This country was built on the strong foundation of religious freedom, and it's one of the rights we hold dearest. As a United States citizen and a proud Sikh American, one of the greatest joys of my life thus far has been having the opportunity to serve the country I love. In my time serving as an Enlisted Sailor in the United States Navy, I've had the chance to not only defend my country but to fulfill a promise I made to honor the legacy of my father.
Spending my earliest years growing up in India, I was exposed to prejudice and injustice at an extraordinarily young age. My father was arrested and brutally tortured during the Sikh Genocide of 1984, forcing my mother to flee to the United States with me, her three-year-old daughter, in tow. This must have been a harrowing experience, but I am eternally grateful for her swift actions in getting us safely to America, the land of the free. Upon arrival to the United States, we were not only reunited with my father but we were given a tremendous opportunity to live a life of safety and countless blessings to excel far past we ever could have in our homeland.
I have always felt indebted to this country for sheltering my family in our time of need, and what better way to repay that debt than by serving in our military? My father always stated that he would give his life for those he loved and for the well-being and protection of his people. I hold these words close to my heart as they resonate very deeply with my passion to serve. This country is my home, it's the land that I love, and I am honored to be given the opportunity to wear the cloth of this great nation.
My family's decision to bring me to the United States made my dream of upholding my father's legacy by serving in the military a much more plausible reality. Whereas Reuters reports that women make up only 2.5% of the Indian Armed Forces, women comprise 15.5% of active-duty personnel in the U.S. military according to the Department of Defense's 2015 Demographics Profile Of The Military Community and I'm proud to be one of them.
This speaks to another core tenet of my faith, Sikhism, that aligns beautifully with the American values I hold so dear – gender equality. Pioneering Sikh leaders worked tirelessly to reform and redefine the status of women in society. Today, Sikh women engage in the same religious, cultural, political and secular activities as men – including serving in the armed forces.
Growing up in the United States, it became apparent to me that many Americans know very little about their Sikh American neighbors, which is why I am thrilled to be a part of a new, national effort to help inform Americans about Sikh Americans called We Are Sikhs.
Sikhism is largely misunderstood because many Americans misunderstand the turban to be a symbol of extremism, when in fact, a Sikh wearing a turban - commonly worn by many Sikh men and a few Sikh women - demonstrates their commitment to equality and serving others. Although I do not wear a turban, I was overjoyed to learn of the January 2017 US Army directive guaranteeing servicemen and women the right to religious accommodations such as turbans, hijabs and beards. This shift in policy has allowed my fellow Sikh servicemen and women the opportunity to proudly display the religious identity that we're so proud of.
While this change may be jarring for some, as before now it was rare to see a turban and a military uniform together, I believe that it will lead us to greater unity. By better understanding the identities of our brothers and sisters in arms, we can become closer as a unified force. I hope that the changes brought about by this new directive will serve to educate my fellow service members on the Sikh religion, and how closely it aligns with the American values we're fighting for day in and day out.
It's important to me that Americans be aware of the sacrifices we Sikhs have made for our country throughout the years. From World War I through our most recent conflicts, Sikhs have taken great pride in defending the stars and stripes. The recent policy shift can be an opportunity for our fellow Americans to be exposed to what Sikh Americans have to offer to our country.
As a member of the United States Navy, I could not be more proud to live in and defend a country that tirelessly strives to promote religious freedom, justice, and equality in today's world. And as a Sikh American, I'm overjoyed to see the growing acceptance in the military community of our faith and religious identity, and am confident that this trend will continue and yield positive results.
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