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.”

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