In a changing US Army, turbans and hijabs allowed

This week, the Army granted three Sikh soldiers long-term clearance to wear their beards and turbans, in what supporters see as hope for greater accommodation of religious diversity in the ranks.

Courtesy of Jovelle Tamayo for the Sikh Coalition
The Army granted Capt. Simratpal Singh, a Ranger and Bronze Star recipient, a long-term accommodation to wear his turban and beard in accordance with his Sikh faith.

Sitting in the barber chair as a brand-new cadet at West Point, Simratpal Singh couldn’t watch as the barber cut his hair for the first time in the Sikh’s life.

“It was excruciating,” says Captain Singh of having to remove his turban and be shorn of his long hair and beard. He asked to turn his barber chair around, and had trouble looking at himself in the mirror for weeks afterward.

“At the time, I decided to basically choose to serve my country,” says Singh, an Army Ranger who went on to earn a Bronze Star during a tour of duty as an engineer helping to clear roadside bombs in Afghanistan. “But what I promised myself is that I’d figure out a way to maintain my articles of faith again.”

It took 10 years, but last week he was granted a long-term accommodation. And this week, three of Singh’s fellow Sikh soldiers also were granted long-term clearance to wear their beards and turbans.

The four more than double the number of Sikhs who have been granted such religious accommodations, supporters say. They see this week’s decision as hope for greater acceptance of religious differences in the future, adding that the current laborious process has the unfortunate effect of discouraging religious minorities from serving in the military.

“I think that’s a shame, because that situation basically pushes away young, qualified candidates, be it from the Sikh religion, or from the Muslim religion, or Buddhist,” says Maj. Kamal Kalsi, the first Sikh to be granted a religious accommodation by the Army in nearly a generation. “If we want a modern progressive military that looks like America, we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that not all Americans look alike.” 

A hijab at The Citadel?

In a sign of the changing face of the American military, the US Army isn’t the only military entity weighing the needs of religious minorities this week. The Citadel is considering a request from an admitted student that she be allowed to wear a hijab. If the accommodation is granted, it reportedly would be the first uniform exception allowed in the military college’s more than 170-year history.

This week’s decision is a clear sign that the US Army is becoming increasingly open to diversity, says Diana Verm, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases.

“We’re hopeful that this will lead to a change in policy in the near future,” says Ms. Verm, who has worked on the case. 

Before 1974, Sikh Americans were allowed to serve in the US military while keeping their articles of faith. Since 1981, stricter grooming regulations required  recruits to request religious accommodations on an individual basis. Prior to this year, only three Sikhs had been successful.

Keeping up the family tradition

Singh knew he was dedicated to military life. Since childhood, he had been fascinated with the soldierly sense of tradition within his own family and his larger Sikh community. His great grandfather was in the British Indian Army and fought in World War I. His family celebrated Singh’s acceptance to the prestigious US military academy.

“We stand for justice, equality, and fighting for those who can’t defend themselves,” he says. “When you don the uniform of Sikhs, you’re telling the world that’s what you stand for, and you’re paying homage to those who came before you and stood for those principles.” 

When his family arrived in the United States, Singh was nine years old. “We applied to multiple countries, and we were very, very grateful for the opportunity to live here,” he says. “I felt obligated to serve my country in the best way I saw fit, which in my mind was military service.”

For now, however, these exceptions are not permanent. The Army has requested “periodic assessments of the effect of your accommodation, if any, on unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety,” Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower Debra Wada told Singh and others, in a memo.

“I may withdraw or limit the scope of your accommodation for reasons of military necessity,” she warned, “including if I cannot confirm that Army protective equipment” like gas masks work correctly with a beard.

Sikh soldiers have repeatedly been asked to test the seal of their gas masks with the use of tear gas, including three days of “extraordinary testing,” says Verm. Special Forces soldiers, who are allowed to wear beards to fit in with the local populations, aren’t required to do that sort of extensive testing, she adds. 

'They didn't care if I had a beard or turban'

For Major Kalsi, who received the first accommodation to wear his articles of faith in 2009, it took a year and a half of paperwork and lobbying, including getting 50 congressional signatures and 15,000 petitioners on a letter to the secretary of Defense.

Kalsi served as an emergency room physician at a military hospital in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for his service. When troops were under attack and injured, “They didn’t care if I had a beard or a turban. They wanted someone to take care of them,” he says. 

Since he learned about the exception this month, the reaction among Singh’s fellow soldiers “has been overwhelmingly supportive,” with messages arriving in from soldiers he served with and old buddies at West Point.

“My will to get this accommodation never faded,” Singh says. “I just had to figure out how to go about it.” 

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