Last month, when units of the Indian and US armies joined forces for a combat exercise in the lower Himalayas, a pair of Indian-born sisters served as a perfect bridge between the two sides. Staff Sgt. Balreet Khaira and Sgt. Jasleen Khaira were part of a 12-soldier California Army National Guard contingent at exercise Yudh Abhyas 2014, which took place September 17 to 30 at Ranikhet Cantonment in Chaubatia. The US team played the role of a United Nations Force Headquarters staff in a scenario which simulated a UN peacekeeping operation in Africa. According to the US Army, “The Khaira sisters served on the staff for the exercise, but also acted as interpreters and cultural liaisons helping US and Indian soldiers overcome language barriers and find common ground.”
Not only were the two sisters part of operations, but were, by default, interpreters and the ‘go-to’ people for most queries. “Let’s ask the sisters,” was a commonly heard remark from American soldiers during the exercise, says the US Army. “And Indian soldiers could often be seen crowding around the two sisters asking questions that were answered in fluent Hindi,” reports an official dispatch. “The sisters were exceptional, model NCOs for the California Army National Guard,” said Colonel Steven Buethe, the officer in charge of the California Army National Guard contingent. “They exuded a positive image all the way around.”
Staff Sgt. Khaira was the ops NCO for the Cal Guard team. Sgt. Khaira was the personnel NCO and also served as a medic for the 189 US soldiers who took part. According to the US dispatch, “Both performed a variety of other tasks, everything from managing exercise requests for information to helping US soldiers bargain for the lowest price for Indian jewellery at the Ranikhet market.”
The annual Yudh Abhyas exercise is sponsored by the US Army Pacific Command. Each year, it alternates between India and the United States. The exercise has a goal of increasing interoperability between the armies of the world’s two largest democracies. A big part of the exercise each year involves cultural exchanges intended to increase understanding between soldiers from two very different nations with different cultural backgrounds and military traditions.
This year’s exercise wasn’t the sisters’ first joint exercise with Indian forces. In 2010, then Cpl. Balreet, a medic for the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and Spc. Jasleen were cultural liaisons for the 14-day exercise at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. They also participated in the 2012 edition of the exercise in Bathinda. “The Khaira sisters have been a living symbol of the strong bonds between India and the United States and a bridge between the US and Indian armies,” said Lt Colonel Kenneth Koop, who assembled the California National Guard team. “They are proud of both their ancestral homeland and their adopted homeland, and have worked tirelessly to help soldiers from both countries understand each other and grow towards mutual understanding and interoperability.”
“The Indian soldiers obviously love it that we’re Indian and in the US Army,” Sgt. Jasleen Khaira told the US Army journalism service. “I think the biggest thing the Indian Army has learned from us is that we don’t just move to America and lose our roots. America is very diverse and you have all these populations that do keep their culture while still being part of the larger American culture. You can do both. You don’t have to get rid of one to participate in the other.”
According to US Army, the sisters had an international upbringing spending the first part of their childhood in Africa, Hong Kong, Macao and their native state of Punjab, India, before immigrating to the US when they were 12 and 14, just a week before 9/11. Their family finally settled in Temecula, California.
“Growing up we’ve always been into doing something that’s just a little bit different than what everyone else does,” Staff Sgt. Balreet said. Balreet enlisted in the California Army National Guard at 17. She said she wanted the challenge and experience of being an Army medic, which she felt would be an advantage later on in a civilian medical career. During her military career, she deployed to Iraq, while also managing to complete a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Riverside. Her long-term goal is to enter medical school and become a physician. Currently, she serves as a platoon sergeant for C Company, 40th Brigade Support Battalion, out of Montebello, California, And if that isn’t enough, she also finds the time to own and operate a 7-Eleven convenience store in Mission Viejo, California. Jasleen serves as a squad leader with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion, out of Manhattan Beach, California, On the civilian side, she was recently hired as a registered nurse at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and is studying to be a nurse practitioner.
“They are force multipliers,” Command Sgt. Major Paul Salinas, the senior NCO for the Califnornia Army National Guard contingent at Yudh Abhyas 2014, said of the sisters. “Both are well educated and come with great interpersonal skills and the experience of working multiple Yudh Abhyas exercises.”