Sunil B. Desai ’87 retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2011 as a lieutenant colonel. During more than 20 years of active duty, he served as an infantry officer in various command, operations, planning, and executive-support positions, both in garrison and combat, and received more than 30 individual and unit awards and medals including the Bronze Star. Currently, Desai is focused on The Bindi Project, a non-profit organization he started to help end violence and discrimination against women and girls in India.
Desai entered Hotchkiss in 1983. “The academic expectations were a challenge for me, but I learned a lot. For example, I wasn’t a good writer, but I enjoyed the strict, rule-based method of writing enforced by Mr. Hawkins. From him I learned that good writing was similar to math (in which I did well) – there were rules and, if I followed them, I could write well, too.” Hotchkiss also provided Desai his first opportunities to develop leadership skills. “By watching teachers and students in leadership positions and eventually being myself a team captain, dormitory proctor, and club president, I was able to experience and implement ideas that previously I had only read about or seen.”
After graduating, Desai attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned a B.S. in mathematics. A four-year varsity team member at Navy (and Hotchkiss), he twice received all-American honors in squash. During his senior year he served as a midshipman platoon commander and led his platoon to second place (of 108 platoons) in the brigade drill competition. “I enjoyed being at Navy. I knew I wanted to be in the military even before attending Hotchkiss and, although the first year was tough (as intended), I felt I was where I belonged.” Four years later, Desai received his commission and began training as a Marine – a dream come true.
After completing a six-month Basic Officer Course, Desai was accepted into and completed the grueling three-month Infantry Officer Course. As an infantry officer, Desai was “responsible for training and leading infantry Marines and making sure all the other ‘military occupational specialties’ were properly planned, coordinated, and integrated with the infantry to ensure mission accomplishment. This requires proficiency in the infantry and a working knowledge of the employment needs, capabilities, and limitations of the other specialties.”
In addition to the Marines’ reputation as the toughest service, Desai was drawn to their ‘first to fight’ maxim. Marines must be ready to deploy to ‘contingency operations’ with little or no warning. To ensure they can respond globally, the Marine Corps maintains combat-ready Marine expeditionary units (‘MEUs’) aboard U.S. Navy ships in ‘hot spots’ around the world. As a young platoon commander, Desai participated in contingency operations in Somalia and Rwanda, while serving in one of these MEUs in the Indian Ocean. Nearly a decade later, on September 11, 2001, Desai was a company commander in another MEU, wrapping up an otherwise routine deployment in the Mediterranean Sea. “I had been promoted to major recently and was quickly reassigned to the operations staff of the division (commanded by a two-star general), where I began what would become many years of rigorous and non-stop planning, coordinating, and deploying to support Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.”
In 2002 Desai deployed to the Horn of Africa to support counter-terrorist operations, and in 2003 he was responsible for planning, coordinating, and supervising the deployment and redeployment of thousands of Marines, their equipment, and supplies for the invasion of Iraq. A few years later, he deployed again as the operations officer for a U.S.-led, multinational unit responsible for creating the new Iraqi Army. Away from the battlefield, Desai had assignments at Marine Barracks, Washington (which included ceremonial duty at the White House), the Council on Foreign Relations (as an International Affairs Fellow), U.S. Strategic Command (which oversees America’s nuclear, space and cyberspace forces), and Headquarters Marine Corps, working at times directly for the Commandant.
But shortly after 9/11, something entirely different, in India—his father’s country of birth—had captured Desai’s attention also. “I have always been proud of my Indian heritage, but I had no idea about female feticide and infanticide until I read an article about ‘India’s missing girls.’ I knew about arranged marriages, but not that millions of baby girls have been killed because their parents want sons or view daughters as a burden. I thought of my own daughter and could not imagine how anyone could intentionally harm their own child. I learned there were other forms of violence in similarly appalling numbers, including child marriage, wife burning, and forced prostitution. I decided I had to do something or disavow my own heritage.” So in 2011, as he put his uniforms in storage, he began work on his new mission.
“I soon found out that the Indian government has been trying to protect women and girls through better laws and law enforcement and that many organizations have been working to empower women and girls by building schools and creating jobs for them. Yet data show the situation has steadily gotten worse in the past half-century. What I found lacking were efforts to engage men and boys directly to change how they view and treat women and girls. So The Bindi Project is doing precisely that.”
Desai’s strategy is notably different from that of others. “I believe most Indian men and boys are good. But because news media and other organizations focus on what’s bad, criminal and even barbaric behavior has become the dominant narrative, and consequently self-perpetuating. My goal is to help good men and boys take responsibility for their own communities, create a dominant narrative of love and respect, and thereby inspire change within those who need it. When people are inspired to change, they own it. If you tell them they are bad and try to force them to change, they will resist.”
Desai is clear-eyed about the enormity and difficulty of the problem. “Marines have always enthusiastically accepted the toughest missions. Though the tools are different, this is just another tough mission. Marines exist and fight in ‘every clime and place’ so that others may live their lives in peace and security.” As their saying goes, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine.’