Cadet Lieutenant Rajiv S Srinivasan was about 16 years old when the charity organisation the United Way of Roanoke Valley elected him to its board of directors. The next person older than him must have been in the mid twenties. Srinivasan coordinated a youth campaign that raised nearly $150,000 (about Rs 60 lakh) for helping public school students.
Five years later, Srinivasan, who is about to graduate from the West Point Military Academy with a degree in political science and Arabic with a minor in engineering, still continues to be a fund-raiser. Along with a friend he has set up an online network called Beyond the Borders to help American soldiers in Iraq connect with American non-profit organisations in Iraq to distribute medicine, school supplies and even soccer balls to Iraqis. The site also encourages people to donate for Iraqi civilians.
Recently USA Today named him among 20 students to its 19th annual All-USA College Academic Team, honouring him and others for outstanding intellectual achievement and leadership.
Srinivasan is the older of the two children of immigrants. His younger sister recently began her college education at Rutgers University. He is in his final year at West Point and is scheduled to graduate in May.
He spoke to rediff India Abroad's Arthur J Pais.
What is Beyond the Borders?
It is an organisation that brings together the American military in Iraq and the non-governmental organisations to help Iraqi civilians.
How did you get the idea for this organisation?
I started thinking about it more than three years ago. I had read there were many service organisations in Iraq who had [a lot] of supplies for civilians. But they were afraid to venture out and distribute them. On the other hand, there were soldiers who wanted to help civilians but did not know where to get certain kind of supplies from. Our network brings the two groups together. We also encourage civilians to donate anything from books to soccer balls.
I have also known that every day, countless United States troops in Iraq freely spend their time and money to make life better for the Iraqi people. They send letters home to scrounge up money for school supplies, form soccer leagues for teens traumatised by the war. I was moved by their example. So my friend and I built this site to make it easier for US troops to let us know what items local communities needed -- allowing us to provide them [the troops] with the support they deserve.
What is it like for an Indian American to be in the military?
I feel very much at home. Many people do not realise it but it is true that the US military is the most diverse force there is in the world today. There are African-American soldiers; there are Jews, people of Latino origin, from the Philippines. And soldiers of Arab origin. I have felt that the army goes an extra mile to accommodate people of different cultures and religions.
Do you have any problems being a vegetarian in the army?
I have never had a problem with being a vegetarian. The army supplies what we call MRE [Meals Ready to Eat]. I think out of every six meals supplied by the MRE at least one is vegetarian. Vegetarian meals are available in the combat zones, too.
You may find it difficult to believe this: But there are some people who wonder whether vegetarians can really fight in an army.
[Chuckles]. I am not in a body-building business. The idea is to have an athlete's body and a sharp mind. And I have that. I eat healthy food, and I think I am in excellent shape because of my diet. I don't think, because of my diet and my healthy lifestyle, I will have to worry about my health even as I grow older.
You grew up in a small Virginia city. Was being a vegetarian a problem for you?
It was never a problem. My mother is an excellent cook and anything she cooks, be it North Indian or South Indian vegetarian food, I have enjoyed it.
Many young Indian Americans say they were bullied in school because their classmates could not understand them being vegetarians.
Surely, it happened to me, too. I was bullied and teased about my diet. Some of my classmates thought I was on a strange diet. But I kept my course and never wavered. Ours is a close-knit family, and family values are very important to me. I knew my family wanted me to be a vegetarian for good reasons. So I did not succumb to bullies. And I never felt something was wrong with my diet.
How did you handle your classmates?
For one thing, I told my classmates that my parents had instilled in me a respect for all living creatures and I was following a Hindu religious tradition. Slowly, they got to appreciate my position. They also knew that I was not blindly following something my parents had told me.
What life lessons did you learn from that school experience?
It showed me how to stick to my convictions. I learned how to argue well. I learned about integrity and fortitude. I learned about being social and at the same time maintaining my own identity.
Many immigrants, including South Asians here, either change one of their names or edit them. So you have a Krishna becoming Chris, and Mukesh turning into Mike.
It is true! I have heard of many such names, and I have wondered why people do such things.
You never edited your name or asked someone to call you Roger or Rich?
It took my teachers a long time in the school to get my name right! But right from my childhood, I never thought of getting an American name, even if some people made fun of my given name. Later, I would tell myself that I will never change my name if I were to discover that the name meant something offensive, for instance a curse word, in any other language. Besides, I always remember that I really do not own the name, Rajiv Srinivasan.
What do you mean by that?
This name, Rajiv Srinivasan, I am carrying for my parents. They had a good reason to choose my name, I am carrying their tradition. If I were to change my name, I would be giving away the gift my parents gave me. To change it would be disrespectful to my parents.
What were some of the most important motivations for you to join the military?
I think my visits to India have to do a lot with it. Every time we went to India, which I love very much, I came to realise how lucky we were to be immigrants in America. I was not blind to the problems people face in this country. But, by and large, I was impressed with the civil liberties people enjoyed here, and I came to appreciate the advantages people have here and the opportunities for anyone to be an achiever. Joining the military was my way of showing my gratitude to America and also adding my own bit to keep the freedoms we have safe and secure.
What was your parents' reaction when you told them that you wanted to join the military?
To say the least, they were surprised. But their main concern was whether I would be able to stand the rigorous training and face the physical and other challenges that come with a military career. We had no exposure to the military. We had a few relatives who were in the air force but that was in India. There were no role models to me in our community. I think my parents and I were very unprepared to what could come out of my experience at West Point. But one thing all of us knew: I was not going to changer my mind and I was not going to quit the military training, come what may.
How did the other members in your family and your family friends react?
It was a huge cultural shock to them! But by now they know it is the best thing that could have happened to me.
What are some of the most important life lessons that you have learned at West Point?
One of my instructors told us that we should not be afraid of making mistakes. He said then: 'Something becomes a mistake only if you refuse to learn from it.'
What can you tell young Indian Americans about choosing careers?
Never let yourself limited to the confines of the careers that you are expected to follow. Look and think outside the box. There are many interesting careers besides medicine, engineering and business.
Do you want to be in the military all your life?
I don't know at this stage. I feel it is a bit unhealthy for me to lock myself in decisions that I could make 10 or 15 years from now. But one thing I know is that I am very ambitious and I want to achieve quite a lot.
But if there is a very fond wish about doing something in life, what would it be?
At some point, whether it is 15 years from now or 20, I want to run for public office.
What fascinates you about public life?
That there would be room to make a change. I do not believe in cynicism and there is so much of it in public life. Even then I know there are a lot of people, who in their own small or big way, are trying to make this country a better place. To run for public office and to hold an office will be a challenge for me to make a change. It will also reflect the reason I joined the military: To give back.