Officer Geena Kaur on the Meaning of Memorial Day

May/31/2021 / by Seema Kumar
memorial day meaning
Navy Ordnanceman Geena Kaur

Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Geena Kaur Sidhu of the US Navy has broken the glass ceiling many times time over.

Born Guldeep Kaur Sidhu, this officer goes by the name Geena Kaur, and is one of the few women of color, a Sikh Indian American woman, to serve in the military.

Kaur’s day job sounds like something out of the movie “Top Gun.” She works on aircraft carriers, loading gun systems and weaponry, including bomb racks, missile launchers, rocket launchers, and loading bombs and missiles on jets. This is a discipline traditionally dominated by men.

Kaur is also a champion for women, youth, the Sikh American community, and the military, something she cherishes especially around Memorial Day.

“It’s important for our community to understand the meaning of Memorial Day,” says Kaur. “We’re used to the Memorial Day sales and the barbecues and picnics. But the true meaning of Memorial Day is to remember service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They laid down their lives for this country and our freedom.”

Since 2018, Kaur has been working on behalf of Cpl. Gurpreet Singh, originally from California, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. His family was unaware that the honors afforded to such heroes included being memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery. Kaur worked on a project to get a memorial marker placed in Cpl. Singh’s name at the cemetery. To Kaur, this represents the true meaning of memorial day.

Born in India, Kaur is the daughter of former youth Sikh activist Satwinder Singh Bhola and granddaughter of Sikh activist Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa. Following the Indian army action in the Golden Temple of Amritsar in 1984, Bhola was arrested and served a two-year jail sentence during which he was tortured. After his release, Bhola moved to California. Kaur’s mother, Sarvinder Kaur fled India to join Bhola in the United States with the then 3-year-old Kaur. The family later moved to Illinois where they set up a family business.

Raised in California, Kaur says that she grew up with a strong sense of faith and Sikh values, including valor, courage and service. She says her parents worked hard to preserve their heritage and culture, and she grew up learning Gatka, or Sikh martial arts, as well as traditional Punjabi music and dance.

memorial day meaning
Officer Geena Kaur with her parents

From a young age Kaur says she felt a duty to serve the country that had offered refuge to her family and this inspired her to enlist in the military and honor her father’s legacy. She dreamed of being a soldier, undeterred by cultural stereotypes about women in combat and her own small frame being a disadvantage in boot camp.

Kaur, who joined the US Navy in July, 2010, is on active duty, and wears the rank of a petty officer second class. She has been stationed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Harry S. Truman, and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

We sat down with Kaur to discuss the the meaning of Memorial Day and talk to her about her life and her service.

The tenets of Sikhism — bravery, women’s equality, service, sacrifice — your story seems to embody that. How did this value of service influence the career you chose?

Growing up, everything for me was always focused around the foundational values of Sikhism – and one of those is selfless service. Especially hearing my dad’s story, seeing other Sikhs in news, social media, [I learned how important it is] to serve those around you. You’re supposed to stand up for and protect those that can’t protect themselves. My choice to join the armed services was this idea that I get to serve a country that gave my family a life. We moved from India following the aftermath of 1984 and my dad’s activism. From a very young age, I felt that I owed this country something, because it gave us an opportunity to build this phenomenal life for ourselves. I always felt that I needed to do something in return. And being Sikh came into play with all of those feelings, and I was able to use the idea of service and serve this country.

Officer Geena Kaur
Navy Ordnanceman Geena Kaur inspires students

You chose to go to the Navy. What was your parents’ reaction?

It’s actually a really funny story. My parents were convinced it was a phase. It was a little scary for them, I’ll be honest and admit that when I got my contract and left for boot camp, we didn’t know anyone in the military, let alone the navy, who was Punjabi or Sikh, who my parents could reach out to for advice. It was a little terrifying for them. I’m the oldest of their kids, I’m also their daughter. And I think for any parent, that’s kind of scary, you know, when, when you’re sending your child off into something that’s very unknown and foreign to you. Dad tried very hard for weeks to talk me out of it. But once they saw me finish boot camp, watched me excel in my career early on, they realized this was the career for me.

As an active duty officer, your typical day seems, like, right out of the movies, “Top Gun” style. What does it feel like to be a woman doing this job in a male-dominated field?

It definitely is a very male-dominant field, I learned that quickly. When I joined, I was tiny. My whole life I had been very underweight. I weighed 97 pounds when I left for boot camp. Even the bomb racks that we work on are almost the same weight as I was when I first joined. So it was very difficult. I was the only woman at the first work center. I worked with all males. I felt very fortunate that I was surrounded by coworkers who held me to the same standard. As my career progressed, it really highlighted the need to be physically fit, to ensure that I was able to actually lift, move, work on the equipment. That became a very important part of my day-to-day life.

Navy Ordnanceman Geena Kaur
Navy Ordnanceman 2nd class Geena Kaur

Talk a little bit about your high points, some thrilling things you’ve done, or any low points that were challenging moments for you.

In my 11 years, I’ve had some very, very challenging moments. One of the toughest elements of this career is that you can’t just go home. If I’m at a bad work center, I can’t just put in two weeks’ notice because I don’t like where I’m working. That can be tough. But some of the high points, I don’t think I could ever have in any other career, [ones] that would bring me as much joy and pride as this does. The look in the eyes of kids, when I [go to] youth camps, and show up in my uniform. When I’m giving mentorship talks about the opportunity that the military has given me to be a role model. It’s such a phenomenal feeling. I couldn’t even put it into words.

You’ve been involved in a special project for these past two years memorializing the service of Cpl. Gurpreet Singh who was deployed with the marines and made a supreme sacrifice in 2011. Tell us about your work related to that.

Memorial Day is to memorialize and remember the sacrifices made by service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. They laid down their lives for this country and our freedoms. And one of those service members is corporal Gurpreet Singh. He was originally from California, and he was killed in action in Afghanistan. His family was unaware that he would be given a place at Arlington Cemetery to be memorialized. The funeral honors and cremation, per our Sikh customs, had already taken place when he first passed. I was informed that we were going to be starting a project to see if we could get a memorial marker placed in his name at Arlington National Cemetery. Now, Arlington National Cemetery is our nation’s most hallowed grounds. We have thousands and thousands of heroes buried and memorialized there. I was absolutely honored when the family allowed me to be their representative, and start this case for their loved one so that we could get a marker placed for him. Now, what’s important about him specifically is … he is only the second Sikh service member at Arlington. So we have Uday Singh, who was killed in action in Iraq. His headstone was already placed there. Gurpreet Singh is the second one., We will be holding a 10-year memorial service for him in July. His family will be going there. They’ll be able to see the memorial marker for the first time in person. It’s a very important place for our cultural community to be able to see this and know that members of our community have also given their lives for this country and proudly defended our freedoms.

Sikh faith and service
navy ordnanceman Geena Kaur attributes her Sikh faith to her sense of service to others and the country

Thank you for your service. What are your hopes and aspirations and dreams?

I plan to retire from the military. So I have about nine years left. I was recently married. So you know, obviously, the [prospect of] starting a family and becoming a mother is a very exciting moment in my life. I’m really looking forward to that. I want to continue serving even after the military. I’m just looking forward to continue to make an impact with my career.

What is your message for young girls who want to pursue a career like you?

It’s always phenomenal to see little girls’ eyes just light up when I speak to them. I want every little girl, every young woman, to know that we are just as powerful as any man out there.

There are many careers that are male-dominant, and it’s up to us to break that glass ceiling. If we never make our way into those communities, it will continue to be male-dominated. I think with our community specifically, sometimes we do have this expectation for our daughters and our sisters and the women in our community that we need to have safe and secure jobs. That we must put other things in our life first and sometimes our careers get placed on the back burner.

Thank you for being a pioneer, for your bravery, your courage, your service. Especially this Memorial Day, on behalf of the entire nation, and on behalf of the South Asian community, we are proud of you. And we salute you. 

Check out this issue in the latest edition of the SEEMA Memorial Day Weekly, available on the SEEMA App

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