From Surat to citizenship, one Soldier's path to a better life
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From Surat to citizenship, one Soldier's path to a better life
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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - The United States has many nicknames, one of which is The Land of Opportunity because it offers anyone with a dream a chance for a better life.

For many foreigners wishing to take part in that opportunity, one option many use is joining the U.S. military.

Army Spc. Sahil P. Thakkar is one such Soldier who left his home in India with goals to improve his life.

Thakkar, originally from Surat, hit a crossroad in his life during his college years where he had to choose a direction to travel.

"I asked my peers and cousins, and they all suggested if I wanted to further my education, the United States is the best," Thakkar said.

As a 22-year old college student who lived at home and helped with his dad's textile business, he made the biggest decision of his life. He was going to leave his home and family so that he could go to the U.S. in order to better his education.

"My parents were confident that I would be able to find my way and manage everything," Thakkar said.

In 2009, Thakkar came to America in spite of his nerves. He chose to be an international student at Michigan Tech University because, fortunately, he had family living in the area to help him adjust.

"My cousins over here really helped me a lot," Thakkar added. "They told me the people over here were going to try to understand. They're not going to make fun of you, and they're very helpful."

The next few years were challenging with juggling the stresses of attending colleges full time, taking up jobs to alleviate international student tuitions and adjusting to life half way around the world from his birth home.

"I finished three years done off of my Bachelors (degree). I got one more year to go," he explained. "I never got the chance to finish my degree because I was having some financial hardships."

Then a family member opened his eyes to another opportunity, the Army.

"My cousin was in the military. He enlisted in 2010 and I got to hear about all the cool stuff from him," Thakkar continued. "I started talking with him and getting some info. When I walked into the recruiters' station, the benefits were kind of impressive.

"After hearing about all of the benefits from joining the military, it was an amazing option because I was going to get free education, plus citizenship and the government was going to take care of my food, clothing and everything else."

In 2013, Thakkar raised his right hand and enlisted into the Army as an Apache helicopter mechanic.

"I wanted to do something really impressive and challenging, and when I did the research, I came across 15R, Apache mechanic. It was a job that could be beneficial in the civilian market," Thakkar said.

Then Thakkar was introduced to his next culture shock at basic training.

"I'm from western India where people are known for being business-minded," he added. "So running ... I never did it in my entire life. The first time I picked up a weapon was during basic combat training.

"Basic training was the biggest challenge for me."

Thakkar had success in overcoming his newest hurdle, which ended with an additional reward. The day before graduating basic training, he raised his hand one more time but this time to become a naturalized citizen of the U.S.

"At that point after three years, I was used to being in the U.S. because my friends are here, my family is here and I've gotten used to the culture," Thakkar explained.

But there would be no breathing room between major decisions because Thakkar was assigned to the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade February 2014, which was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan the following month.

"I was given an opportunity to say no because they were like 'oh you just showed up. Are you going to be able to go to Afghanistan? We can take you later,'" he said.

"I said I'll go right now and I think it was a wise call. When I talked to my peers and noncommissioned officers, they said deployments are good for your career because you learn a lot about your job."

Thakkar deployed to Kandahar Air Field the following month under Task Force Raptor and returned with a title very few Americans hold ... combat veteran.

He also got to return to his parents, as they became permanent residents of the U.S. while he was deployed.

Now Thakkar has reached a point in his life where the crossroads he once stood at with family, education and success leading in different directions have come back together and merged into one path.