After cordial introductions at an Indian or Indian-American gathering, I’m sometimes asked, “Is that right? You’re in the Navy?!”
To some, it seems like an anomaly: An Indian-American who left his hometown in Southern California for the U.S. Naval Academy and still remains on active duty 19 years later.
Yet – it’s not as rare as one might think. During the past half century, as Indian-Americans have increasingly become interwoven into the fabric of American society, they have also become an important component of the U.S. Military.
The initial wave began in the 1970s and early 1980s, when a few Indian immigrants were inspired to serve their adopted home. Armed with their newfound U.S. citizenship, these first-generation Indian-Americans steadily rose to become senior military officers by the late 1990s. In fact, a number of military officers – individuals such as Navy Capt. Thakor Patel, Army Col. Pradeep Gidwani, and Army Col. Kotu Phull even helped found an American Legion post (welcoming all Indian-American veterans) before the turn of the century.
As this first generation concluded their careers, a number of second-generation Indian-Americans also began to find a sense of purpose in the military. Motivated by a desire to give back to their country, many of them have reached amazing heights. Members of this generation include: Air Force Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar, who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1987 and served as the United States’ first exchange pilot instructor to the Indian Air Force.1 Another is Navy Cmdr. Paul Antony, a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy Reserve, who, in 1994, became the first Indian-American to be appointed as a White House Fellow.2 And Navy Capt. Sunita Williams (née Pandya), was the first Indian-American female to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and also the first Indian-American military officer to be selected as an astronaut. During her 15-year career as a member of NASA’s astronaut corps, Williams has launched on two space station expeditions and has spent more than 10 months in space.3
The service ethos found in the U.S. Armed Forces continues for Indian-Americans even after leaving the military. Take Army Maj. (Dr.) Sudip Bose, an emergency medicine physician who began a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2003. Bose saved and treated hundreds of Iraqis and Americans; he was also the first physician to treat Saddam Hussein immediately after his capture. Ten years later, Bose continues to use his military and medical experience to advocate on behalf of veteran healthcare issues throughout the country.4Or consider Lt. Col. Sunil Desai, who, after serving 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, recently launched The Bindi Project, a nonprofit organization committed to improving the lives of women and girls in India.5
A few have even become strong national advocates for important causes. Anu Bhagwati joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1999 and became just the second woman to complete the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor trainer school. Today, she is spearheading the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit human rights organization that provides national policy advocacy and direct support to servicewomen and women veterans. Bhagwati has testified before the U.S. Senate, advised White House officials, and has spoken before numerous national audiences on important issues regarding women in the military.6 Veterans such as Bhagwati, Bose, and Desai have become inspirational figures; not just for the Indian-American community, but also for thousands of young Americans who serve their country in uniform.
In 2013, the U.S. Military continues to stand as one of our country’s most respected institutions (https://www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx). Indian-Americans should be proud to know that their community has produced some of the finest military officers and enlisted personnel over the past 40 years. During my years in the Navy, I’ve been honored to meet many of them – In the U.S., Europe, and even Afghanistan. These individuals, along with the community they represent, have truly become a unique part of the history, legacy, and tradition of America (https://youtu.be/JmO-Jeb_fTU).
The views expressed above are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Sunny Ramchandani currently serves as a Commander in the US Navy Reserves and is an Assistant Professor of Medicine for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He is a board member of the Physicians Foundation and Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Aetna. A highly decorated naval officer, his extensive experience in military medicine has given him a strong background in population health and primary care transformation. He has served as Medical Director of Healthcare Business at Naval Medical Center San Diego, Chief Medical Officer of the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), and Integrated Chief of General Internal Medicine at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he co-founded the US Navy’s Patient-Centered Medical Home model in 2007. A former White House Fellow, Sunny earned his MPH (Healthcare Management) from Harvard School of Public Health and his MD from Yale School of Medicine. He received his BS from the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a Truman Scholar and graduated first in his class academically. He also an Indiaspora Patron member.