Montgomery, the capital of the state of Alabama in the United States of America, is the location of Maxwell Air Force Base. Among the various tenants on the base is Air University, which conducts in-service training for senior United States Air Force officers. The two prominent residential programmes that Air University conducts are Air Command and Staff College for officers of the rank of Major and Air War College for officers of the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel.

For both programmes, in addition to USAF officers, the university invites officers from other arms of the United States Armed forces, civilians working for the Federal government and finally, officers from friendly foreign countries. What is unique about the invitations extended to officers from friendly foreign countries is that the government of the United States accords all of the invited foreign officers the same status as officers of the United States armed forces for the duration of the programme. In India, Rohit was unaware of this fact when he was intimated by Air Headquarters that he was detailed to attend the Air War College at Air University, but he found out soon enough. On the instructions of Air Headquarters, he handed over command of Indian Air Force Base Barnala to his successor and reported to New Delhi to prepare for his new assignment in the United States.

The first task was to report to the United States embassy in New Delhi for briefing. While entering the embassy with his wife Kiran, Rohit pointed out to her the smart US Marines on duty at the entrance, standing ramrod stiff at attention. The Marines looked on impassively as Kiran and Rohit entered the embassy and were escorted to the office of the military attaché. The military attaché carried out a thorough briefing about what they could expect during their travel to the USA, details of the course at Air University, the process for the visa, schooling for the children, and finally, with great ceremony, handed over to Rohit his “Orders”. Intrigued, Rohit and Kiran read the “orders” and were surprised to find that the “orders”, issued by the United States Secretary of Defence, basically gave them the same privileges that US armed forces officers were entitled to. While undergoing training in the United States, Rohit would be wearing on the pocket flap of his Indian Air Force uniform, the rank insignia of a United States Air Force Colonel, as that was the equivalent of his Indian Air Force rank of Group Captain. That was so that US personnel knew his rank and could pay him compliments accordingly!

Rohit digested the information slowly, and the briefing having been completed, escorted Kiran out of the military attachés office. On the way out, they once again went past the US Marines on duty at the entrance. This time however, the Marines were anything but impassive. They now treated Rohit as they would a United States Colonel. Coming to attention, in perfect harmony, they rendered a crisp, smart salute, which Rohit returned equally smartly. For a brief moment, he remembered a scene out of a Hollywood movie “An Officer and a Gentleman”, which had featured a tradition of the US armed forces – when an officer gets his very first salute, he is required to give a dollar to the soldier saluting! He thought of going back and giving the marines a dollar but thought better of it when he realised that he did not have dollars in his possession yet! The salute did bring emphatically home to him, the trust the US government was reposing in the foreign officers who would be training at Air University.

So it can to pass, in the summer of 2003, that Rohit, his wife Kiran and their two boys, Varun and Sameer, found themselves bound for Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery Alabama.