WASHINGTON – Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, one of only three turbaned soldiers currently serving in the U.S. Army, received a bronze star Dec. 1, after returning from a six-month stint in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
In its citation for Kalsi’s bronze star – the fourth-highest combat award – the Army recognized Kalsi’s “exceptionally meritorious service as an emergency medicine physician” while deployed in Afghanistan.”
“His leadership and dedication to duty were instrumental to the unit’s mission during combat operations,” noted the Army.
The Army also listed 20 of Kalsi’s major achievements while he was deployed in Afghanistan, noting that he provided emergency care to over 750 soldiers and successfully resuscitated back to life two patients who were clinically dead on arrival from the only Army expeditionary hospital in Afghanistan.
“I was speechless,” Kalsi told India-West about learning that he had received a bronze star. “I felt honored that the Army had recognized my hard work and effort,” he said.
The Helmand Province is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for U.S. soldiers, as Taliban fighters try to re-establish control in regions where they once dominated, Marines Major General John Toolan told reporters at the Pentagon in June.
The Taliban are not well-trained as fighters but do know how to build and bury roadside bombs, which are a major threat to U.S. troops, he said.
Kalsi, who deployed with the 115th Combat Surgery Hospital in January 2011, served in the Helmand province as the officer in charge of an expeditionary hospital, which has the capabilities of a regular trauma hospital but is situated inside a tent.
“The Helmand Province is the bloodiest and hottest zone,” said Kalsi, noting that he treated a lot of bombing and burn casualties, along with victims of gunshot wounds.
“Operating in that environment, you really get to test the limits of your capabilities,” said the 35-year-old Indian American, who received his training as a doctor of emergency medicine and disaster at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey.
“We were on 24/7. Our living quarters were only 200 feet away from the ER, and once a patient came in, we would all run to the ER, day or night,” he recalled.
The ER also provided care to civilian casualties in Afghanistan, said Kalsi, noting an unusual incident in which his unit successfully removed a disfiguring feature from the face of a young girl.
U.S. troops had been trying to penetrate the girl’s village. After Kalsi and his team treated the girl, the village leaders softened towards American presence in their village and helped the troops.
“We probably saved 10 or 20 American lives by helping that one little girl,” Kalsi told India-West, adding that this was his proudest moment of military service.
Kalsi, who was born at Kanpur Air Force Base and immigrated to New Jersey with his family at the age of two, said it had always been a dream for him to serve in the armed forces, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather, who all completed distinguished military careers in India.
But he was almost sidelined from his dream when Army officials mandated in 2008 that Kalsi serve without his articles of faith, a turban and beard. Kalsi had been promised by his recruiter that he could keep such items while serving in active duty.
Kalsi applied for a special religious accommodation and received it a year-and-a-half later, along with Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist. The Defense Department has indicated that accommodations made for Kalsi and Rattan do not constitute a blanket policy for turbans and beards to be allowed in the military, but has since made accommodations for one more Sikh, Simran Preet Singh Lamba.
Kalsi, who wears a special camouflage combat turban on most days and a patka over his helmet when facing dangerous situations, said he was neither ridiculed nor singled out by fellow personnel for his headwear and beard.
Indian contractors, who provided the troops with food, were floored to see a U.S. soldier in a turban. “I got lots of extra food,” he joked.
Kalsi has been married for eight years to his wife Chinar. The couple has two children: Maya, four, and Kabir, who will be three in January.
President Barack Obama has ordered home 23,000 troops from Afghanistan by 2012 and the remaining 68,000 by 2014. Kalsi anticipates returning to the Helmand Province for at least one more tour of duty.
“The Army is very short of medical staff, especially ER doctors,” he said.