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Desi Making Waves

By Roopsi Risam

From the Heart of India to the Heart of Combat: One South Asian woman's journey

“In the convoy from Kuwait… on an Army-created road through the desert… All were asked to take out weapons, keep revolvers loaded, cocked and ready, and form a perimeter around the Humvee… We had heard of convoy attacks... We had on our whole 40-pound ‘battle rattle’ gear to protect us, chicken wire around the Humvee so people can’t climb up, sandbags on the floor of the Humvee in case of explosion, and a tank… Eight of us each had a segment to keep watch.”

The war story told by Colonel Sanjivani C. Bakare M.D. is not actually one of traditional combat and Bakare is not an ordinary soldier.

“We had a flat tire,” she says wryly, “It was the only time I had to be a soldier, not a surgeon. Then, it was weird. Now it’s just scary.”

Colonel Sanjivani C. Bakare M.D.

Considering that the Army only has a 3.4 percent Asian population, how did this doctor become one of the few South Asians to join up? Born in Waraha, Maharashtra, Bakare hails from the center of India, quite literally. “If you draw a line from Kashmir to the cape and one from Bombay to Calcutta, there is my hometown,” she says. Bakare’s immigration to America was quite unusual for the time: “I came in the 1960s. It’s not like it is now. Then, there were no Indian people, let alone single Indian women in Connecticut.”

America’s lack of diversity did not deter Bakare and neither did the male-dominated nature of her specialty, general surgery: “At that time, there were practically no women in surgery… There was one other woman resident with me… The hospital had never had two women residents at one time before.” From what she has seen, Bakare believes that women still tend to be leery about time-demanding surgical careers, opting for other specializations that lend themselves more easily to combining both careers and family.

Bakare cites the fact that she did not have children (although she is married) as one of the reasons she was able to become involved with the military. She had the time to enrich her career as a surgeon with participation in the Army Reserves: “I became involved in the Army late in life… around the time of [Operation Desert Storm], the first Gulf War… [It was a] burnout kind of thing. You reach a certain stage where everything at work is just not as challenging. I wanted to try something different… I also joined the Army to make sure I didn’t become heavy,” she jokes, referring to the rigorous fitness standard the Army demands.

According to Bakare, “There are two types of people who are part of the military… The first is the ‘career’ armed forces, people who either went to West Point or…. join [out of high school] because they need the money and don’t have the advantages of education.” The other way people become involved in the military is the Army Reserves. People who join the Army Reserves are not exclusively trained for military service but support the Army with the skills they use in civilian life. Lawyers, engineers and, in the case of Bakare, doctors, are just a few of the civilian careers held by members of the Army Reserves. As a Reservist, Bakare volunteers one weekend a month and two weeks a year, participating in drills and working at an Army hospital.

“Yes, I am trained in combat,” she says, “The Army wants to make you a soldier… You want to say, ‘I’m willing to take care of your injured soldiers because I’m a good doctor.’” Indeed, the Army wants doctors like Bakare to join up, as it is short on surgeons. Bakare cites the surgeon shortage as “20 percent less than needed.”

In her Army training, Bakare is put in combat situations and is given the very same training as “regular soldiers.” The Army does not expect the Reservists to measure up exactly with a full-time soldier’s training, but does ensure that they come very close because, “The Army thinks of [all] soldiers as assets. Just as you protect your most valuable guns and ships, protect your surgeons, take good care of them.” The training, then, is as much for the Reservists own benefit as for the Army’s.

Stationed in Baghdad Airport during her tour in Iraq, which lasted from May to August of 2003, Bakare exercised her medical skills more frequently than her combat skills. Living on a schedule much like that of a fireman, she never knew what to expect. However, Bakare had to always be ready to spring into action. Working with a Forward Surgical Team, a source of immediate medical care for troops, Bakare, along with 19 people, including other surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses, traveled with everything they needed to create an operating room in a tent. In six Humvees and trailers, they had refrigerators, generators, lamps, carts and tables, as well as sinks with pedals to pump water.

“The whole system can be set up in four hours, anywhere on the face of the earth, if you are trained to do it,” she says, “It can be taken down in two. We want to take the care as close to the injured as possible. With sooner treatment, we have higher chances of recovery. This is the principle of the Forward Surgical Team.”

Generally, Bakare worked 12-hour shifts, desperately trying to catch up on sleep otherwise. However, when there were mass casualties, everyone had to wake up and be ready for work. Grateful that the situation in Iraq was relatively quiet when she was over there, Bakare remembers being exhausted not from the work but from the heat and dust of Iraq. “The dust was everywhere when a helicopter landed,” she recounts, “It is a fine dust… The type of dust that made a nice mudpack. Free sauna [from the heat] and mudpacks. And we were slim. Everyone looked nice when they came back.” Bakare’s sense of humor is undoubtedly a source of her perseverance.

Although Bakare’s interaction with the Iraqi people was minimal, she had the opportunity to meet with several families. One family in particular came to her team with their little daughter who was accidentally caught in the crossfire. Understandably, the parents were angry and upset. However, they were adamant about having their daughter seen in the Army hospital, not a local hospital. They knew their daughter would receive better care from the Army, but their tone, in the words of Bakare was, “You caused this, you fix it.” Bakare also had a chance to see more positive interactions between Iraqis and Americans. An Iraqi medical student was working as a guide for American troops and the Humvee they were traveling in had blown up. The Iraqi student was hurt less than an American soldier with whom he had bonded and repeatedly called at the hospital to check on his friend. The genuine concern that the Iraqi felt for the American was heartening in an uncertain time: the Bush administration had declared the war over, Saddam Hussein’s statue had come down, yet everyone knew the end was nowhere near.

Due to the unified and indeed uniformed nature of the armed forces, being South Asian was of little relevance to Bakare’s experience. “First, I was a surgeon, then an American, then whatever else,” she says. Back in the United States, however, Bakare is still treated like a foreigner sometimes, but she thinks that the perennial question, “Where are you from?” is voiced quite differently now than it was when she first arrived in America. In the 1960s, the question was an incredulous one, implying or even exaggerating the difference between her and the inquirer. Now, however, Bakare hears the question as a very “American” one: “As soon as we know someone, we somehow ask about heritage.” The implication is that being “American” means that although we are currently living in America, we (or our ancestors) all came from somewhere else. Rather than seeing the question as divisive, Bakare sees the inherent commonality of America’s diversity.

Having returned safely from her time in Iraq, Bakare has spoken about her experiences with both medical and community groups. In her experience, South Asians with whom she has spoken are very proud to know that “one of us” served in Iraq. Bakare identifies this pride as the type she, herself, felt when hearing about Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space aboard the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia. While the many professional positions held by South Asians in America and abroad are important, Bakare notes that we want to be part of the accomplishments made by South Asians who choose career paths that are not typical. Indeed, Colonel Sanjivani Bakare is one of these very South Asians, representing America and us in the U.S. Army.

Roopsi Risam is an English and Creative Writing alum of the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate student in English at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Additionally, she teaches American and British Literature at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School and writes and edits for ABCDlady. Which of these is done "on the side"? Depends on who's asking.

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