06/18/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

An Immigrant's Call to Service

Lynn Gail via Getty Images

I am an attorney, a mother of two small children and a recent graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. I am also a veteran who had the honor of serving alongside some amazing men and women as a JAG officer in the United States Navy.

I'm as unlikely a military officer as you will find. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India over 40 years ago, and I immigrated a few years later. We come from a caste of merchants, not soldiers; so when I wasn't in school, I spent my time working in my family's convenience store. Military service was never even a topic of conversation in our home.

So, you can imagine my parents' surprise and confusion when, in high school, I told them I had earned a competitive nomination to West Point. Not knowing anything about military service, they vetoed my plans.

But a few years later, when a Navy recruiter visited my law school campus, I signed up.

It certainly wasn't the most lucrative path I could have chosen. But in my heart, I knew I had to give back to the country that had so generously opened its doors to us and allowed my parents to lift our family out of poverty.

This time, my parents thought I was crazy. "The Navy?" they protested. "You don't even know how to swim!"

But thanks to the YMCA, I learned how to swim. And when my parents later saw me in uniform, and saw that I was a part of something greater than myself, they could not have been prouder.

I'm often asked why I chose to serve. I knew even as a high school student that it was important to serve, but I've struggled in articulating why. Then I came across these words from fellow Navy veteran Senator John McCain. He said:

"In America, our rights come before our duties, as well they should. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to care or not care for our birthright. But those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it, live a half-life, indulging their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves.

Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest -- these are small things. They make us comfortable, ease the way for our children, and purchase a fleeting regard for our lives, but not the self-respect that, in the end, matters most. Sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, however, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause."

The truth is there is no guarantee that the rights that make us American -- and the values that underlie them -- will endure. Anyone who wants to ensure that those rights and values are passed on to the next generation must serve a cause greater than his or her own self-interest, be it in the military or otherwise.