In the wake of a tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, my heart is particularly torn. As a Hindu, I share a bond with the Sikh faith rooted in Dharma; more tangibly, their immigrant community in American suburbia closely resembled my own childhood. I can visualize the temple coming under siege, and parents and children alike — not unlike my own uncles and aunties — permanently scarred for life in their worship.
Yet at the same time, I’m a veteran, just like Wade Page. In most news articles, Page’s military service is somewhat tangential to his biography, mainly because he served so long ago, from 1992–98. He never had to see combat, and his record was tainted with alcohol abuse and AWOL status. It’s easy to marginalize him as just an anomaly of the Armed Forces. But to those who continue to read headlines about the lack of cultural civility in our combat arms — whether stories on “Kill Teams” in Afghanistan, the Haditha shootings or Abu Graib in Iraq, or even the suicide of an Asian service member after being racially targeted in his own unit — the 98% of Americans who have no relation to the military service start to see this as common place about the way our service members regard diversity.
If there’s one thing I hope America remembers about our military, it’s that we are indeed a cross-section of the country. If bigotry and insensitivity exists in our ranks, it’s because it originated in our society first. The context of serving in the military simply gives a visible and strategic platform upon which such ignorance can severely affect our mission abroad, and our image back home.
For an immigrant soldier like myself, this is an important distinction because in immigrant and minority communities around the country, there is a growing sentiment that the military ethos is not one of tolerance, but of conformity; that the military puts pressure upon its people to abandon their ethnic identities for a manufactured “made-in-America” brand. I spend several hours each week speaking to parents whose kids passionately want to serve our great country, but the family is fearful about the way their child will be treated.
To date, the most telling example of this fear is the reaction a Muslim soldier I served with had to the military’s colloquial use of the word “Hadji”. In his faith, it was a term of endearment bestowed upon people who made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But over the course of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the term Hadji has become the equivalent of Vietnam’s “Charlie” — a derogatory term to reference locals. When this Muslim soldier heard his teammates say “Search the Hadji,” he heard “Search the grandfather”.
With examples like these, the argument for an immigrant enlisting can fall short. But the story I try to tell is the one of compassion and tolerance; the one where my soldiers treated me with respect and dignity, as long as I did my best to serve them. I tell them how my Protestant Battalion Chaplain strove to meet my religious needs in combat. I tell them of how honored I am to have served with the finest men I’ve ever met.
Whether or not Page’s military record had any effect on his racist views, the fact that he is a veteran makes him an ambassador for the military brand. I can tell my story to every skeptical immigrant parent in the country, but Page’s narrative on a news broadcast undoes so much progress that my colleagues and I have made in our diasporas around the world. Diversity is a force multiplier on the front lines. It offers a means to relate to our enemy, our coalition partners, and to those within our own ranks. But folks like Wade Page make the family-nature of the military experience harder to tell; and though our wars are ending and troops are coming home, the next time we invade a country, the consequences of that perception may follow us there.