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In Soldier's Death, Sikhs Find Pride

Anniversary Honored at Arlington

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page C03

The grave marker in the front row of Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery looks like almost every other marker in that precise arrangement on the grassy burial ground, but for Sikhs, it is one of a kind.

Under that gray-white headstone lies Sgt. Uday Singh, the first U.S. soldier of the Sikh faith killed in the war in Iraq. A group of three dozen Sikh people from the area came yesterday morning to honor the first anniversary of the 21-year-old Army gunner's death in Iraq with a modest service, and just as important, to remind the rest of the world that Sikhs are Americans.

Narinder Dhami, left, Balbir Kaur Pandher, Manjir Kaur and Prabhjit Singh honor Sgt. Uday Singh, a fellow Sikh. (Photos Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

"This is pretty emotional for me, what he gave and what he represents," said Army Staff Sgt. Hardeep Singh, 32, a Sikh mourner from McLean who joined the memorial in the blustery cold while on six-month leave after being stationed in Kuwait.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Sikhs said their fellow Americans viewed them with suspicion, wrongly assuming they were Muslims because of the turbans that Sikh men wear as part of their religion. College students at the service yesterday recalled how some drivers on the highway confused them for members of the Taliban in Afghanistan because of the similar black headdress.

And so the anniversary service served two purposes. It was a way for local Sikhs, most from Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, to pay tribute to Uday Singh and his family. And it helped them show their pride that a Sikh had sacrificed his life in battle for his fellow Americans.

"I believe our roots in this country are strengthened by the sacrifices of people like Uday Singh," Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Washington-based Sikh Council on Religion and Education, told the group huddled against the cold. "Sikhs are not only enjoying the freedoms and benefits of this country, but we are also willing to sacrifice our lives for this country."

Uday Singh was born in India but moved with his family to Lake Forest, Ill., in 1998. Singh, who was from a military family, chose to enlist in the Army in the summer of 2000 rather than enroll at the University of Illinois. On Nov. 23, 2003, he and members of his patrol were killed when their Humvee convoy was attacked by insurgents in the town of Habbaniyah.

Singh's parents sent letters to the Sikh mourners a few weeks ago to thank them for commemorating the anniversary of their son's death.

His death has a special resonance for Hardeep Singh, who struggles to make his ethnic identity clear to other Americans even though he's the fourth generation of Sikhs to settle in the United States.

"My dog tags still say {grv}other,' " he said. "Some people think I'm Muslim. Sometimes I get Spanish. I tell the other soldiers: {grv}Remember, I'm Indian. I'm brown. Don't shoot me.' "

The youths at the ceremony wore the typical trappings of U.S. teenagers -- Old Navy fleece jackets and designer boots. But they carried their heritage as well, leading their parents and fellow churchgoers in a centuries-old battle cry that Sikhs yelled when fighting Moguls who were trying to forcibly convert everyone to Islam.

"Whoever replies to this chant . . . " the children shouted in the Punjabi language.

"Let them be victorious!" the adults responded.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company