Gratitude at gunpoint: Flight surgeon uses resiliency skillset to beat adversity

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

Since coming to the United States alone as a teenager, Lt. Col. Sandeep Gill has been robbed at gunpoint, endured poverty, and lived out of his car to make ends meet. And he is grateful for every minute of it.

In fact, it was that sense of gratitude, and a love for his adopted country, that drove the 489th Bomb Group flight surgeon’s future success and led him to a life in the Air Force Reserve.

“It really goes back to the U.S. Constitution, because it creates a sense of justice,” said Gill. “It empowers people to be citizens and that, philosophically speaking, is what got me here.”

Gill arrived in Pennsylvania in 1985 to attend college, leaving his family behind in India. He hoped to become a nuclear physicist, but his father had other ideas.

“He said knowledge without wisdom and science without humanity is a social evil,” said Gill. “He told me, ‘You will heal people, that’s what you will do.’”

Honoring his father’s wish, Gill decided to become a doctor and quickly became obsessed with getting into medical school. He flourished in his undergraduate studies, developing an intense interest in molecular biology. But outside of school, life was beginning to unravel.

Back in India, Gill’s father died. At the same time, political and social unrest was sweeping across the country and his family became the victims of violence and political persecution. Gill knew they would not be safe there and began to seek asylum for them in the U.S.

Poverty and Perseverance

Gill had to use his school savings to get his family to the United States. He decided to go to New York City to earn enough money to continue his education and began working at odd jobs, first a restaurant, then at a gas station where he was robbed at gunpoint on two different occasions. He ultimately found employment as a cab driver, a safer and better-paying job.

It was in New York that Gill, struggling to survive financially, decided to place a debt upon himself, one which would take decades to repay. His family had joined him in New York City, but their time to remain in the U.S. was limited if they were not granted political asylum. Without it, his family would be forced to go back to India and a very uncertain future.

So, when a judge signed an order allowing his family to stay safely in the U.S., something clicked inside Gill.

“I thought how awesome it was and decided, then and there, that one day I would join the military and pay this favor back,” he said.

Gill moved to Texas to attend medical school, still very poor but determined to become a doctor. He could not afford to live anywhere, so he scraped together $150 to buy an old car, using it for both transportation and housing.

“I basically showered at the gym, ate at the cafeteria, and lived out of my car for a few months, but it was such a busy time I don’t even remember how I got through it,” he said. “Besides, I was young and thought gravity didn’t apply to me.”

Nothing could seem to stop Gill, not even when his old car broke down for the last time on his way to class.

“All I could do was kiss the hood and walk off,” he said, laughing at the memory. “I had a pharmacology exam to get to!”

Paying back the last debt

Gill’s perseverance paid off. He completed his final residency in 1997, nearly twelve years after coming to this country, but life went on and Gill established his oncology practice, raising a family and doing research to fight cancer for his patients.

Financially he was doing well, but one debt remained. Gill had not forgotten the promise he’d made in that New York City courthouse the day his family was granted political asylum in the U.S.  He was determined to serve his country.

Already a licensed pilot, Gill decided to join the Air Force Reserve. The decision to do so at age 45 caught many by surprise.

“My wife calls it my mid-life crisis,” he said, breaking into a grin.

But the smile faded quickly as he recalled the decision to join despite his growing medical practice, on-going research, and family obligations. He listened to all the objections, there would be no retirement and no real benefit for joining. And he ignored them all.

“I felt like I had to join because of that promise I made,” he said. "Who knows what would have happened to my family if they would have had to go back to India at that time?”

It took nearly two years of paperwork, prodding, and pushing for Gill to finally earn his commission as a flight surgeon. As always though, he persevered, fulfilling the promise he’d made more than two decades earlier.

With several years of service and a Bomber Task Force deployment under his belt, Gill looked back on his decision to serve without any regret.

“When you believe in something, you just have to put your heart and soul into it and don’t worry about what the results will be,” he said. “You just have to do what needs to be done."