Five years after he was shot to death by enemy fighters in Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Gurpreet Singh’s bedroom is still decorated in red, white and blue. His dress uniform hangs in his closet with medals pinned to its left breast.
Outside, bumper stickers on all three of his family’s cars celebrate his life. His father, Nirmal Singh, keeps a poster on a wall in the Antelope home calling the corporal an American hero.
Singh and his family bleed patriotism. And they’ve spent much of the past week watching the immigrant parents of another fallen military service member spar with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“It hurts,” said Singh, 55. “I don’t know why. It’s like they’re playing political games with a Gold Star family.”
Many military families around the country have been surprised by Trump’s criticism of the parents of the late Army Capt. Humayun Khan after they endorsed Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and rebuked Trump at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week.
That public battle defies the boundaries of normal politics, where families who have lost loved ones in combat generally are given wide leeway to speak their minds without criticism from political leaders.
“Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me,” Trump wrote on Twitter about the Khans earlier this week after implying that the soldier’s mother did not speak out at the convention because of her Muslim faith.
His tactics drew condemnation from leaders of the groups Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Gold Star Wives and the grief-counseling nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) also stepped in to criticize Trump.
Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer, a former Marine who usually supports the Republican Party, urged Trump to apologize.
“You are not just attacking us, you are cheapening the sacrifice made by those we lost,” wrote a group of 27 Gold Star parents in a letter published this week through the organization Vote Vets. It was organized by Karen Meredith of Mountain View, whose son Army Lt. Ken Ballard was killed in Iraq.
As members of the Sikh religious minority from India, the spat hits especially close to home for the Singhs.
They identify with the Khans, a Muslim family of Pakistani descent who like them lost a proud son to their adopted nation’s long wars.
Nirmal Singh noted that he’s often met other immigrants when he gets in touch with Marines. Among the Central Valley’s Iraq and Afghanistan casualties, fallen troops hail from Cambodia, Colombia, Laos, Mexico and Vietnam.
“Religion does not matter. They love their country. That’s why they go and they should be respected,” Singh said.
Unlike Trump, the Singhs didn’t question why Capt. Kahn’s mother stood silent at the convention next to her husband, Khizr.
Cpl. Singh’s mother, Satnam Kaur, likely would do the same. Sometimes, she feels too sad to talk about her son, her family said.
“When (Trump) said something about (Capt. Khan’s) mother, that insulted my mother,” said Cpl. Singh’s 28-year-old sister, Manpreet Kaur.
It hurts. I don’t know why. It’s like they’re playing political games with a Gold Star family.
It’s not clear whether Trump’s skirmish with the Khans will damage his chances on Election Day.
“In my opinion, it’s clearly a mistake. Going after Gold Star families is holy ground and you just don’t go there,” said Matt Rexroad, a Republican Yolo County supervisor who served with the Marines in Iraq at the start of the war.
Two polls in May – one from Military Times and one from the online news site Morning Consult – showed that military service members and veterans tended to favor him over Clinton. That was well before the party conventions.
A handful of veterans spoke up for Trump since his back-and-forth with the Khan family. They noted in essays and blog posts that protesters at the Democratic convention sometimes shouted down military speakers with chants of “no more war.” They also argued that Trump will better defend the country than Clinton.
On Tuesday, another veteran in Virginia gave Trump a Purple Heart, awarded to people wounded in combat, showing faith in Trump’s potential as commander in chief.
The Singhs want to see a more inclusive message – and an apology to the Khans – from Trump.
They said they’ve always felt welcome among the Marines and other military families they’ve met over the years.
At a 2013 ceremony, the Marines posthumously awarded Cpl. Singh a Bronze Star for the valor he showed on combat patrols in the last two weeks of his life. The Singhs were touched that members of his unit took the time to learn about their Sikh heritage and paid tribute to their culture in the medal ceremony.
But lately, the election has them feeling as if military families are turning against each other.
“It’s like they’re trying to divide even Gold Star families,” Manpreet Kaur said. “We should be united.”