Adding 3rd Culture to the Mix: The Army's

Army 2nd Lt. Aaron Singh Mann, center, with his wife, Angela, prepares to cut the cake as his father, Surjit Mann, waves for guests to participate.
Army 2nd Lt. Aaron Singh Mann, center, with his wife, Angela, prepares to cut the cake as his father, Surjit Mann, waves for guests to participate. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

On the eve of his departure, before the road trip to the rest of his life, the young Army officer strode to the center of the main dining room Saturday night at the Army and Navy Club in Washington to cut the sheet cake his mother made for his farewell party.

The room of about 100 well-wishers erupted into hearty applause. Second Lt. Aaron Singh Mann, 26, who spent his early childhood in Fairfax County, lowered his head shyly, focusing on the white frosting and green petals that his mother's pale hands had delicately placed around the edges. He cut a single piece and then returned to his seat among the bearded men in red, pink, black and white turbans and the women dressed in colorful crepe and silk, hand-embroidered saris.

Mann, whose family name means "proud" in his father's native Punjabi, is the only son of Surjit and Judy Mann, who live in Virginia Beach. Surjit Mann, a prominent member of the Sikh community in the Washington area, where he is a real estate agent, wanted his son to be a doctor. But two years ago, while studying for his master's degree in public administration at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Aaron Mann decided to join the U.S. military.

"I just felt a pull," he said. "Something inside of you is pulling you. You can't explain it."

Surjit Mann, who wears a turban to cover his uncut hair in accordance with his faith as a Sikh, remembered how torn he initially felt. "It's my only son," he said. "It's not an easy decision, especially when people think you are a terrorist" because of the turban and beard.

Surjit Mann and his wife met 35 years ago in Washington at a party at the Indian Embassy, where the young Mann worked as a diplomat. Judy Mann was a nurse. Aaron Mann grew up straddling the worlds of his parents. He and his sister were raised as Christians like their mother, a native of Pennsylvania.

As a young boy, Aaron Mann dreamed of being a rock star. "I am a huge Elvis fan. I wanted to be Elvis or the president of the United States."

He did not imagine that one day he would become a soldier, even as his friends joined the service.

"I shied away from it," Mann said. "I thought it was funny hanging out in the woods on the weekends."

On Sept. 11, 2001, he sat on his sofa with his wife, taking turns holding their 1-year-old son. They were transfixed by the images from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, of the burning buildings, the screams, the anguish of relatives. "I don't think it was immediate, but it changed everything," Mann said. "As time went on, there was a sense other people were doing something of real value for their country, and I thought, 'Why can't I do that?' "

Three years later, Mann joined the Army. He was commissioned last week after graduating from Old Dominion. His father was the only parent in a turban.

"People don't look at me and think I'm Indian. But you look at the people here. They're not even related to me," he said, gesturing toward the guests celebrating his commission into the Army. But he said, "There's a common bond. They've influenced me. I stayed at their homes. I ate their food. It's part of who I am."

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