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."
In his green Army uniform, he is just Mann, the officer, the soldier, and as he sat with his back to his parents dancing in the middle of the dining room Saturday night, he recalled the commencement address President Theodore Roosevelt delivered in 1902 at West Point:
Of all the institutions in this country, none is more absolutely American; none, in the proper sense of the word more absolutely democratic than this. Here we care nothing for the boy's birthplace, nor his creed, nor his social standing; here we care nothing save for his worth as he is able to show it.
Because he does not wear a turban, Mann did not have to choose between his religion and a career in the military. Since 1986, the U.S. military has required all soldiers to conform to uniform dress and grooming requirements. Before that, Sikh men were allowed to wear their turbans. In recent years, Sikh community leaders have lobbied the government to make an exception for Sikh men, whose 500-year-old faith, rooted primarily in northern India and Pakistan, requires them to grow their hair and wear a turban.
"We believe that religion and the love of country should not be exclusive to the other," said Rajwant Singh, president of the Montgomery County-based Sikh Council on Religion and Education.
Politics aside, Singh said he is proud of Mann. "May God bless you, and we will continue to pray for your success that one day you will be chief of staff," Singh told Mann during the party. "But I will be president," he added with a laugh.
"As a Sikh person, I am so proud of him," said Shahbeg Sandhu, a retired professor and family friend from North Carolina. "He took up what his ancestors did. He picked up his father's heritage."
Mann will spend the next six months at Fort Sill, Okla., training to be a field artillery officer. From there, he will move with his wife, Angela, and their three children to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. He expects eventually to be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan for a tour of duty. "Everyone knows they will end up in the Middle East," he said. "From the beginning, they tell you that everyone will see some time there. You shouldn't have any illusion."
After a short night of sleep, Mann kissed his wife and children and began his journey just after noon yesterday. He had mapped the drive to Oklahoma -- 23 hours if he didn't stop. But, of course, he would stop, he said. He had to see Graceland.
As he pulled away, his father sat beside him.