by We Are Sikhs — July 28, 2020
"If we set our mind to it, we can do great things."
Naureen Singh is a newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. She follows in her father G.B. Singh’s footsteps, a U.S. Army veteran who was the highest ranking Sikh to wear a turban and keep his beard. Naureen hopes to grow into a great leader, like her father, and help others pursue their goals. She is remaining in the U.S. Air Force reserve while pursuing a masters in Criminal Justice from the University of Colorado at Denver, CO.
The following interview occurred between the National Sikh Campaign's communication manager, Kristen Meiser, and Naureen Singh.
This post has been edited down for brevity.
Could you tell us about your experience growing up?
I was born at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and then we moved to Colorado Springs when I was about a month old. I have been in the city ever since I can remember, and it is a very military city. Growing up here, I really didn’t think too much about my dad being in the military because I was always surrounded by military families.
When I started going to Sikh camps in 7th grade I realized I was the only person at these camps who had a dad in the U.S. Military. That was the first time I wondered, “Why don’t any of the other kids have a dad who is in the military, let alone a dad who has a turban in the military.”
Military families are known for moving around a lot. What made your family decide to stay in Colorado Springs?
My parents really valued education. Pretty early on they decided they wanted us to stay in the same school district, rather than have us move around every two years. I am very thankful for this, looking back. I really liked growing up here.
Growing up in Colorado was especially helpful for me in terms of my Sikhi. It made me recognize how unique my faith made me. I think if I had grown up in a place like California or New York, where there was a big Sikh population, I probably wouldn’t have cared as much about my faith. It would have been all around me. I was really standing out here, so I was forced to really take on my Sikhi. I had to really learn about why my dad was fighting so hard, the way he was. I saw why that identity was so important to him, and why it would be important to me.
Your dad is the U.S. Army’s highest ranking Sikh American to keep his turban while serving active duty. Did you see any trials and hurdles he had to overcome in his military career?
When the Army changed their policy, in the 1980s, he was pretty much told to shave or to get out. There were a few other Sikhs that were also in the military at that time and they did leave. My dad stuck it out.
I think my dad got really lucky. He had really good commanders who vouched for him and took care of him. When other people said he should shave, his commanders would step in and say that he had already proven himself to be a really good asset for the army.
What led you to pursue a career in the U.S. Air Force?
Growing up, I always thought of my dad’s story as uniquely his. It could never really be a part of my story. It really wasn’t until three or four years ago, when I graduated university, that I was at a crossroads with my career. My mom happened to suggest a career in the military. Honestly, my first thought was, “There’s no way I am going to get in, but we’ll see how it goes.” It took me three or four years just to get my foot through the door and get to training. I was really on edge the whole time because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Now that it has finally come to fruition, I do think that this is where I am supposed to be. Looking back, I can see that it was always meant for me but I didn’t recognize it because I always pushed it away. I am glad it worked out the way it did. I am really happy so far.
It’s weird. I never thought that this would be me. I had a vision for my life going one way. When things started to change a little bit after adult life, I really had to take a step back and ask myself why I pushed the military away for so long. I couldn’t come up with a good answer. So, I thought, “Why not take a risk? Why not take a challenge? And let’s see what happens.”
How has your faith influenced your decision to join and your service in the U.S. Air Force?
I think if there is one thing that my Sikhi has really helped me grow, it is my desire to never give up. Growing up in Colorado, in the school system here, I was the only Sikh in my class. It really forced me to stand out and fight to be brave and courageous. I think that really became parallel to my experience joining the military. I didn’t want to give up. Even if it was really difficult or the process was challenging.
My Sikhi really showed me that it’s worth always pushing. I think it is better for you if you continue to realize how strong-willed you are and how resilient you can be. Sikh history, in many ways, taught me that by having really empowered Sikh females. Even when the odds were stacked up against them, they continued to rise up and defeat the odds.
The biggest example of this, for me, is Mai Bhago. When I read about her at Sikh gurmat camps I was always so floored by how she was able to do what she did so long ago. Even in today’s age it would be very difficult to do what she did. I can only imagine what that was like centuries ago. It made me think, “If she can do that so many years ago, why can’t I?” Her story has really helped me personally and intrinsically to recognize my core values of courage, bravery, and fighting for what’s right.
What did you do between college and the military?
Between college and the military, I dove into community organizing for both the Sikh and the AANHPI (Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander) communities, creating and presenting "Know your Rights" training, and working on my master's degree.
For so many years prior, life was one in which I was just "checking off boxes" based on what I thought society wanted me to do. Once I had time to ask myself some tough questions about my goals in life and where I saw myself having the most impact, that is where I began to take the idea of a career in the military more seriously. Even though it took a couple of years to go through the process, I valued every part of the wait. Had it been easy and quick, I don't think I would have appreciated the journey getting here nearly as much.
Can you walk us through what your time in the military has looked like so far? What are some milestones?
I have only just started, so the biggest milestone for me has definitely been going through training for officer school. I went into that training not really sure what to expect. For the first week or two of training I was feeling a lot of imposter syndrome and was thinking, “I’m not supposed to be here.” Those first two weeks were a really big transition period for me, but my training did a really great job of breaking down any self doubt I ever had.
They put so much pressure on you that you are forced to just let go of any doubts you have and just keep pushing. Once I had broken down those barriers that I put in my mind, it was so nice for me to realize why the Air Force has always been what I am supposed to do. It’s challenging me. It’s making me a better leader.
I think that is one of the milestones in life that I am taking forward. I realized I shouldn’t always doubt myself. If I put my mind to it, and I am confident in what I am able to do, I can do anything. I never really had that mentality before. This was really the first time I was broken down and built back up, and because of that, I emerged a stronger person, airman, and leader.
What was it like to go through officer training during a global pandemic?
It was interesting. I got my start date back in August. When the pandemic hit the U.S. we were all on edge. We didn’t know if training was going to get cancelled and there were still a lot of unknowns in the air. I didn’t know if I was going to go until two weeks before. Once we got confirmation that this was “mission essential” we knew it was going to continue. We were the first class to really go through the entirety of the training during the pandemic.
Over the first two weeks everything was changing constantly based on the new information coming in. We had to wear masks and have our temperatures taken, and took precautions along those lines, because there was no testing available at the time.We were pretty much quarantined with the 15 other people in our group. Once we had gone through the two week quarantine period, there were still quite a lot of changes. A lot of things in the curriculum had to be cut out, like events that would typically happen in close contact.
We had a different experience, but it was a great experience for me. Going through that kind of training, during a pandemic, really instilled in us the importance of flexibility. We had to constantly be flexible and I think that really is a valuable skill in the military.
Are there any aspects of being in the military that are difficult for you, as a Sikh? How do you handle those situations? Do you try to explain your faith to your colleagues? If so, what is their reaction?
To be honest, I think my experience has been very different than a lot of Sikhs in the military. The biggest difference is that I don’t wear a dastar or have a beard. Most people, without talking to me, don’t even recognize that I am a Sikh. In that sense, it’s a bit different than someone like my dad.
My faith didn’t really come up until I was at training and getting to know the people I would be training alongside. As we all got to know each other, our backgrounds, and what we hope to do in our careers, my faith came up because it is a big part of me. My flight mates asked questions, even if they have never heard of my faith, which is more than what I could have asked for. We all bonded through the process, and you quickly learn in environments like that what makes people want to serve and why knowing that as a leader is so important. I hope that my work is speaking for itself; and that my experience as a Sikh brings a unique lens to look at things.
When you are put through training, especially where there is so much pressure, you realize that no matter what your different backgrounds or experiences are, you’re all working toward the same goal and that takes precedence over everything. Trusting the person next to me, especially in stressful situations, is what counts at the end of the day.
Do you have any aspirations for your military career? A particular rank you want to achieve, or a more personal mission?
I had a really long conversation with my dad about this. Growing up, we never really talked about the military. It just never really came up. When I started this process I started having more conversations with my dad about his time as an officer and how he led. We had really long conversations about what exactly I wanted to learn and how I wanted to grow from this. I realized pretty quickly that it was never about making rank.
At the end of the day, being an officer is about taking care of my people. Helping my junior officers or enlisted continue to grow and find their aspirations in life is what will give me true happiness. As long as I can take care of them, that’s what matters to me. For my military career, I want to help and to make the Air Force a place where people can truly rise to their highest potential.
In terms of life, in general, I really want to continue in public service. I’m not sure what that looks like. I do know that I gain tremendous happiness from teaching people about their rights and educating them on what to do in certain situations. That is something I really take great joy from. As long as I can continue doing that, in some capacity, I will be very happy.
You mentioned that you like to educate people on their rights. How did you discover this passion?
This passion was one that really came to me once I started doing organizing work around anti-bullying when I was an intern with the White House Initiative on AAPI's. During that summer, I got to do some pivotal work with the anti-bullying task force, and somewhere in that journey, I realized the work can only go so far, and it is just as critical for communities to be empowered enough to advocate for themselves as well. This really planted the seed for me, and I found myself continuing that work as I transitioned out of university and into the workforce. It was a passion that really began out of luck, but I am so thankful it did because it gave me an opportunity to help others, which is, at the end of the day, gives my life purpose.
What do you wish more people in the military knew about Sikhism and what do you wish more Sikhs knew about the military?
To be honest, I’m not sure if I know much about what the military should know about Sikhs. I’ve only just entered. I think for any space, just recognizing that Sikhs exist is probably the big one. I think once that milestone has been crossed then there can be longer and deeper conversations about what that means. I think that all of the Sikh community recognize the lack of awareness. That’s why it’s important that we show that Sikhs can enter any realm or sphere and that we can really do great things wherever we end up. That’s one thing that I do hope continues. We need to show we exist as a community and that we are here.
In terms of the other way, I never really came across any Sikh females in the military before I started this process. The ones who have always been very well known, and rightfully so, are Sikh men. I struggled to see how I fit into this as a Sikh woman. I wondered if I was strong enough to do this or worthy enough to be in the military. I want to remind Sikh women that you are capable and you can do anything that a Sikh man can do. I think this process has shown that I am just as resilient, strong willed, and courageous, as anyone else. I hope that we continue to see more Sikhs enter the U.S. military. If we set our mind to it, we can do great things.
What would you say to young people, especially young Sikh women, who are considering joining the military?
If this is something you want to do, do it. If I had acted on any of those doubts I had about going through this process, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t know how much I am actually capable of.
I always used to doubt myself. I thought I never could do this. I used to not be very physically fit and was so scared of joining.This process has shown me that I can do it. If I work hard enough, I can do anything. For Sikh women, don’t ever sell yourself short because everybody truly brings a unique, valuable perspective to anything that they do. It is really important to recognize what that is and then do not shy away from it. I think if I had shied away from it, I may be in a very different place than I am today. I am very thankful that I had especially good role models, like my dad, to look up to and continue to tell me that it’s really important to recognize your self worth before anyone else can.
I saw it at training. There were instances where I excelled in one particular field compared to my flight members and there were times when they excelled in a particular thing. The great thing is we all came together and recognized everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. Then we could continue to push, and prop each other up; even when situations were incredibly stressful and I didn’t think anyone could prop anyone up at that time. It was a really great experience of recognizing how much every human is worth.
Is there anything else you want to share?
This has been something on my mind. I recently wrote a very quick blurb on my LinkedIn page about my dad and how he inspired me to join. I just posted it for my close friends and family to see, but pretty soon after I realized how much attention it was catching, not just from my Sikh community but from the military community in general. It was interesting to see my dad’s reaction to it.
He joined the military in the 1970’s, which was a very different time than it is today. He was not expecting all the positive outpouring of support for my post, because he did not see that when he joined. I think it is really great to see, from my dad’s eyes, how people have really rallied behind our story of joining. I hope it only continues to encourage and inspire other Sikhs, or anyone else who wants to join the military.
If this is what you want to do, and you feel it in your heart, try it. If worse comes to worse you won't get accepted. But, if you do, you could do really great things.