When Saipranathi “Sai” Karra tells people she is joining the Army Reserve, she is often met with the same question: Why?
Karra, 18, has many options for her future. She is valediction of this year’s senior class at Cleveland High School in Johnston County. She was accepted to the University of North Carolina and plans to go to medical school.
But when an Army recruiter cold-called Karra last winter and asked if she’d like to join, her immediate answer was yes.
“It’s innate in me,” Karra said recently. “I always told my parents I wanted to be in the military at some point, so when I got the opportunity to join now, I rolled with it.”
Staff Sgt. Evan Woods of the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion made the call to Karra. He said at first he couldn’t quite believe she wanted to join.
“I call her ‘the unicorn,’ because that does not happen,” he said.”There are a lot of young adults who we reach out to who want to serve, but they’re not able to. With Sai and the Reserves, it’s a perfect fit.”
Karra began imagining herself in a uniform at a young age after she saw her uncle wear the military garb of India, her native country. She and her family came to the United States when she was 5, and she dreamed early on of joining the military.
In elementary school, she wrote reports about life as a soldier. As a contestant in a beauty pageant at age 13, she announced to the crowd she wanted to grow up and join the Army.
“Nobody clapped except me,” said Karra’s mother, Shreem Karra. “Nobody knew if they should take her seriously.”
Karra admits that she doesn’t fit the stereotype of an Army recruit. A self-described bookworm, she didn’t play sports in school, and she wasn’t part of the JROTC program. Her parents say they can’t remember her ever doing a full push-up.
But Karra was sure about her decision to join the Reserve. Instead of heading to Chapel Hill this fall as a pre-med major, she will defer her college education for a year and instead attend basic training with hopes of eventually becoming a combat medic.
“One of the misconceptions we are trying to get rid of is that the Army is a last resort. It is not,” said Barton Hutchinson, chief of public affairs for the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion, which serves 80 percent of North Carolina. “Some of the best and brightest leaders in our country’s history served in the Army. We’re looking for those people who can maintain that standard, and Sai is a perfect example of one of them.”
Military recruiters reached out to Cleveland High’s 384 seniors this year. Four, including Karra, decided to enlist.
It can be tough to get accepted into the military. Twenty-nine percent of young Americans meet the basic qualifications for enlistment, and only 1 percent of the U.S. population serves.
In the mid-2000s, the Army sometimes lowered physical, mental and moral requirements in order to boost recruitment numbers amid long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that’s not the case now, Hutchinson said.
Karra easily passed all cognitive and moral standards, Woods said. Those standards include everything from having a high school diploma to not having certain kinds of tattoos.
But Karra and her parents have worried about the physical requirements of basic training.
“We’re not fitness freaks,” said her father, Ravi Karra. “That’ll be the hardest part for her. But she has got that determination. She’ll come out on top of it.”
Karra said she asked Woods what would happen if she fails the Army’s Basic Training Physical Fitness Test, a three-part endurance test that includes two minutes of push ups, two minutes of sit-ups and a timed two-mile run.
“He said they haven’t had anybody fail basic training yet,” she said. “Hopefully this is not something I’ll be first at.”
To prepare, Karra has been exercising regularly and training with other recruits.
“She is physically weak, but emotionally and mentally very strong,” her mother said. “She has a very big heart. Whether she can do it or not, if there is something she has to do, she jumps in.”
‘I want to give back’
Karra’s story is notable in another way, too: Minorities who are not black or Hispanic make up only 7 percent of active-duty Army personnel.
A strong economy and a general lack of understanding can keep many young people – of all ethnicities – from choosing the military, Hutchinson said.
For those like Karra who don’t have strong American military ties or JROTC experience, it’s often patriotism that inspires them to serve.
“I remember spending time with my family (in India), but we’ve made roots here,” Karra said. “The U.S., this is my homeland. It’s given me a home, education, new life. I appreciate it and I want to give back.”
Karra is already looking further into the future.
“If I can get through basic training, that will be a big accomplishment,” she said. “After that, I’m not really scared of the rest. Circumstances might be bad (as a combat medic), but I don’t think I could ever be scared of trying to help someone.”