US Army staffer Balreet Kaur Khaira is more than an asset for the force, especially when they are in conflict zones in Iraq or Afghanistan or in India for a joint military exercise.
Her expertise in Hindi and Urdu has helped her act as an interpreter between US and Indian forces, and locals.
More than 400 US Army personnel and the Congo Brigade of the Indian Army are getting familiar with each other’s organisational structure, weapons, equipment and tactical drills at the 12th edition of ‘Yudh Abhyas’, the joint military exercise between the forces at Chaubatia in Uttarakhand.
In addition to her tasks as a staffer, Balreet doubles up as an interpreter between US and Indian soldiers. Soldiers from either side look for her whenever they have problems communicating with their counterparts.
Born in Moga in Punjab, and raised in Chandigarh, the 27-year-old’s fluency in Urdu came handy during her posting in strife-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I know Hindi and Urdu, and that helped me a lot in Afghanistan. I was able to connect with the locals and they too were happy to communicate,” Balreet told HT.
Fellow troopers have nicknamed her and her sister Jasleen, who also works in the force, as ‘cultural diplomats’.
But it has not been an easy journey for her in the US force, being an Indian and a woman. “Then there were only few Indians working in the US force (when I joined in 2004). Being a woman, it was not easy to adjust.”
Her family moved to the US a week before the September 9, 2001, attack on the two World Trade Centres in New York. Balreet was 14 and Jasleen 12 then.
“My father is in port business and kept on moving to different countries before deciding to finally settle down in the US. We reached America a week before 9/11. Post the attack, Indians and Sikhs in particular faced lots of issues,” she said.
Raised in Chandigarh for most of their childhood, it took the young girls a while before they adopted the American culture while not forgetting their Indian traditions.
Balreet joined the US Army’s medical wing at the age of 16 as a soldier and later moved to the infantry division.
Jasleen followed her sister’s footsteps. Over the years, Balreet has been promoted to the rank of staffer.
Kaur sisters had participated in three joint military exercises -- one in US, two in India -- including the one held at Chaubatia in 2014.
As the army’s ‘diplomat’, Balreet is happy that perceptions towards Indians have changed, at least among their colleagues.