Recently (Aug 9, 2014) “Portraits of Sikhs,” conducted an interview with U.S. Navy Petty Officer Geena Kaur. We though her story was so cool, we wanted to share it! (She is the person in the middle of the above photo).
“My family, like many of our families, lived through the horrid events of 1984. Growing up, I heard more and more about the events of that terrible time in our home state. Hearing about my family’s and especially my father’s struggles was heartbreaking. To think that if we had stayed in India, would my father be alive? Would my mother or I still be alive? It’s a scary thought. Hearing those stories and then growing up in the United States gave me a sense of love, respect, and indebtedness for this country,” Genna Kaur.
1) Please tell us about yourself. Why did you join the U.S. armed services?
My name is Guldeep Kaur Sidhu, I go by Geena. I was born in Punjab, India. At the age of 3, I came to the United States and grew up in California. At 16, my family moved to Illinois and that has been home ever since. I am 23 years old and am currently serving as active duty in the United States Navy. I have completed 4 years and just recently reenlisted for another 6 years.
I knew since I was a child that I wanted to serve. Everyone has dreams growing up and mine was to be a soldier. I remember I used to tell myself that I would never be able to become one because I couldn’t even do a single push up and I would probably die in boot camp! Funny to look back at that thought now as I am completing my 4th year of service.
Growing up in a traditional Punjabi Sikh family, as the oldest child and a daughter at that, you can’t really just announce you’re going to go run off and join the military. So originally, I started off college studying psychology with the aspirations of becoming a child and adolescent psychologist one day. Back home in Illinois, my college was located about 10 minutes away from the Rock Island Arsenal, an Army and Marine Corps reserve base. A majority of my friends were in the Marine Corps or other branches throughout my freshman and sophomore year of college. This is when it started settling in that I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life. I’ve always been one to only work for things that I have sincere interest in. Towards the end of my second year of college I started focusing less on school and more on how to drop the bombshell of an announcement of joining the military on my parents. At the end of my sophomore year, I left behind college and enlisted in the Navy. Now everyone would recommend finishing school before anything and part of me does wish I had completed my degree before I left for the military but I can wholeheartedly say that I wouldn’t take back my decision to join for anything.
As for specifically why I joined the military? My family, like many of our families, lived through the horrid events of 1984. My father was deeply rooted in all this came to the US in fear of his life. Growing up, I heard more and more about the events of that terrible time in our home state. Hearing about my family’s and especially my father’s struggles was heartbreaking. To think that if we had stayed in India, would my father be alive? Would my mother or I still be alive? It’s a scary thought. Hearing those stories and then growing up in the United States gave me a sense of love, respect, and indebtedness for this country. This country is the reason my family is now safe and able to live in peace. Even this country has it problems, we are not perfect as a nation, but at least we have simple human rights that are nowhere to be found in India at times. I may be an Indian by birth but my mind and heart has always been American. I love this country for everything it stands for and it makes me so proud to know that I put on a uniform to defend this beautiful country.
I am an enlisted service member and wear the rank of a Petty Officer Second Class. I am an Aviation Ordnanceman. I work on gun systems and ordnance that go on Naval aircraft. Needless to say, my job is pretty freaking cool and I love every second of it! I have been stationed on three ships so far, the USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Harry S. Truman, and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. All three ships are aircraft carriers. I have about a year and a half left on my current ship, the Eisenhower, before I head off to my next duty station.
Along with being active duty, I am also a full time student at Tidewater Community College. I will be completing my Associate’s in Administration of Justice this December and then will be finishing up my Associate’s Degree in Psychology before transferring to Old Dominion University to complete my Bachelor’s. I have been very fortunate to be able to continue my education while serving and to have the Navy pay for a majority of my college expenses.
3) What’s been your biggest learning experience/moment after joining the armed services?
My biggest learning experience was when my grandma, my Nani Mama, passed away while I was deployed. I was very close to her as a child and growing up. She had been sick for some time at that point and when I deployed, my biggest fear was that something was going to happen to her and I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to her. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened. She passed away on January 11th, 2012, just one month into my deployment. When she passed, my parents didn’t have the heart to tell me because they knew I was alone. It wasn’t until about a day later when my best friend saw a post my sister put on Facebook and wrote me an email sending her condolences, thinking I was already aware of her death. On top of losing her, I was not able to come home for her funeral because in the military’s eyes, she was not immediate family. In that moment, I realized not only the true meaning of the sacrifices military personnel have to make but the importance of the oath we take before we leave for boot camp. When I was told I would not be able to go home, it became all too real that I was now an active duty service member. My country and its people came before anything else. My obligation to serve and fight was more important and that no matter what, I could not back down. Yes, the military will accommodate personal matters to the best of their abilities but at the end of the day, there is a job that needs to be done and a fight that must be won. Since that event, it seems as if my skin became just a little bit thicker and my passion to be a part of something bigger and better than us all became even more concrete.
4) How do you practice your faith considering that you spend a significant time traveling to new places?
I have been fortunate enough to be stationed in places that had Gurdwara Sahibs close by. In Everett, WA, there was a Gurdwara Sahib literally minutes away from where my ship was and I would go almost every day after work. Lately, I have been so caught up with school and work that I rarely have time to make the drive to the Gurdwara Sahib here in Chesapeake, VA. However, I have always been one to believe that my relationship with God is between Him and I. It isn’t measured by how many times I go to the Gurdwara Sahib in a day but how many times I remember his presence, his power, and his will. I do path every day, I wholeheartedly believe whatever he does is for the best, and I do kirtan every time I can.
5) Please share your thoughts on the ongoing campaign to increase the number of Sikhs in the U.S. military.
I am extremely proud of the steps Sikh service members have taken to serve. Maj. Kamal Kalsi is a role model to me and to finally have met him earlier this year at the Vaisakhi event at the Pentagon, was an incredible moment. It is very nice to see more Sikh servicemembers, especially females. I know that many Punjabi/Sikh families do not see this career field as a woman’s place. My father in fact told me that same thing. He told me the military was not a woman’s place and that was just that much more motivation to join. Yes every parent wants his or her child to have a well-paid job and to be successful and comfortable in life. But I must say that even after I get out of the military, there is no uniform that I could ever wear that would make me more proud of myself than the uniform of the United States military. And as for this not being a woman’s place, I believe it is just as much a woman’s place as it is a man. If I can defend my country to the best of my abilities and have a successful and fulfilling career, I am no different from a man that wears this uniform.
6) Do you experience any issues being a Sikh woman in the armed services?
Personally, I have had no issues being a Sikh in the U.S. military. I have had more issues just being a female. Being a female in the military is not easy and then to be in a male dominant career field like mine, it is not easy at all. My job is physically demanding so there are many women who cannot do it as well as the men can. So in every shop/division I’ve been in, I’ve had to work harder than I ever imagined to earn my place amongst my brothers in arms. But no matter how hard it got or how much crap I had to deal with, I continued to strive forward and that made it all worth it.
Do not let anyone tell you, you should not serve. I know this isn’t the cookie cutter job that most parents would want in our community to but it is my proudest accomplishment. Just because it is a path less traveled, does not mean it isn’t worth walking down. And if you do continue on to serve, remember that we have our whole community watching us. It is never enough to do the bare minimum. You must always want to be better than you already are and accomplish even more than you already have. We must set an example of excellence.
8) Please share your hobbies, interests and passions.
Well, don’t really have much time for hobbies anymore. I am very passionate about sexual assault awareness and suicide awareness within my command. Both issues have been at the forefront recently and it’s a great feeling to be able to help take a proactive stance. I am a sexual assault victim advocate for the Navy. In the unfortunate event a sexual assault occurs, victim advocates provide support throughout the process following. We help them get the physical, mental, and emotional help that they may need and help them through the legal process, if there is one. Along with this, we also hold training throughout the year to raise awareness. Being a part of this program is very important to me. Women make up a majority of victims in sexual assault cases in the military so not only is it a very true and real concerns for myself as a women but also as a service member, it is my duty to assure that my brothers and sisters in arms have a voice for hope and strength. I know this is a very taboo subject in our community so we tend to look the other way when it comes to these concerns. But, with Sikh service members within our military, it is very important that we do not look over this issue.
As we all know, suicide amongst service members and veterans is shockingly high. My command alone has had a handful of suicides since we’ve made our way over to the shipyard. It is extremely important that no service member ever feels that they have nowhere to turn. This is why I am so passionate about suicide awareness. I work with the ASIST program in the Navy. This program is a suicide intervention program where sailors are trained to provide first aid care to someone who is expressing suicidal thoughts or admitting to wanting to commit suicide. We are training to know the difference between the two and how to handle each. Being able to help my fellow brothers and sisters in arms is the best feeling ever.
9) What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?
Ten years from now, I see myself in either one of two places. I hope to be a commissioned officer in the Navy and continuing my service or I hope to working with law enforcement, specifically with special victims. Either way, I know I will be happy and proud of my choice of career.
Photo sources: Sikh Coalition, Russell Brammer,