Let Sikh GIs serve in accordance with their faith
Last month, I attended a congressional hearing on religious accommodations in the U.S. armed forces. The Pentagon had just released revisions to Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17, and the media was in a frenzy. As a proud U.S. Army officer with four generations of military heritage in my family, this issue means a lot to me, and I want to clear the air and explain why.
Sikhism and military service
I am a Sikh. Like all devout Sikhs, I am religiously required to wear a turban and keep my hair and beard uncut. The turban is worn as a constant reminder of my religions obligations — remembering God, earning an honest living, service and helping the less fortunate. Our very visible articles of faith, including our unshorn hair and beards, represent our commitment and connection to God. Removing them would mean severing ties to the same principles that make us great warriors.
We have been battle-hardened by centuries of religious persecution in South Asia. During the Mogul invasions of India, Sikhs stood up for religious freedom — not only for themselves, but others as well. As children, we are inspired by stories of our forefathers who gave up their lives, but never gave up their faith. Their legacy is a community of 25 million Sikhs worldwide, flourishing in every profession, and proudly serving in modern militaries throughout the world.
Sikhs have a long and distinguished history of military service. As reported by The New York Times in September 1897, a group of 21 British Sikh soldiers famously repulsed an attack by more than 10,000 Afghans for six hours during the Battle of Saragarhi. They gave up their lives, but never gave up on their mission. An estimated 80,000 British Sikh soldiers gave their lives and more than 100,000 were wounded during both World Wars. Sikh Americans have served with distinction in the U.S. Army for more than 100 years and in every major world conflict. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that irrational barriers were put into place that presumptively banned Sikhs from serving.
Joining the U.S. Army
It is not clear why the Pentagon began restricting religious liberty for servicemembers in the early 1980s. Under the new rules, Sikhs serving at the time were grandfathered in, and nobody was sure what would happen to the next generation of Sikh Americans, like me, who wanted to serve their country. The Sikhs who were grandfathered in continued to serve with distinction.
So when I joined the Army in 2001, I knew that Sikhs were serving in the military and was reassured that my Sikh articles of faith would be accommodated. When I reported for active duty in 2009, however, I was told that I would have to abandon my articles of faith. It was a choice between God and country.
It was a difficult time for my family and me, but we never gave up hope. After several months of advocacy — including support from Army officials, 50 members of Congress (with both parties represented), and more than 15,000 petitioners in the Sikh American community — and support from our fellow Americans who reminded us that the first settlers came here looking for religious freedom, I was ultimately allowed to maintain my Sikh articles of faith while serving the country I call home.
Contrary to popular belief, Sikhs are not asking for special treatment. We just want a fair chance to prove our abilities. For example, I had to graduate from boot camp and prove that I could wear a gas mask and helmet. The gas mask easily accommodates beards, as military members in the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, India and U.S. Special Forces already know. I worked with Army officials to develop standard protocols and a field manual for wearing turbans and maintaining beards as part of my uniform.
We essentially codified what Sikh soldiers had been doing for a century. If Sikhs are unable to meet the rigorous demands of boot camp or get a good seal with their gas masks, then we wash out of the program, just like any other American.
I deployed to Helmand province in Afghanistan and treated thousands of combat casualties in one of the bloodiest zones in theater. Unit cohesion and esprit de corps were never an issue. Two of my fellow Sikh soldiers have also graduated from boot camp with their articles of faith and earned awards and promotions for their service. I believe our faith has made us better, more focused, and more disciplined soldiers, and I know we are assets to the military’s global and modern missions.
DOD’s new religion guidelines
Despite our progress, Sikh Americans continue to face major obstacles if they want to join (or even stay in) the U.S. military. For example, the new revisions to DOD Instruction 1300.17 require us to reapply for accommodations every time we deploy or are assigned to a new duty station, even if we have performed our military duties with excellence.
Another problem is that the instruction requires servicemembers to suspend their religious practices while an accommodation request is pending. This is a Catch-22 because Sikhs cannot violate the very practices for which accommodations are sought.
Without further revisions, the instruction may shut talented Americans out of our military, simply because of their religion. As of now, servicemembers in Canada and the United Kingdom enjoy more religious freedom than those in the U.S. Given that our nation was founded on the principle of religious freedom, this is both ironic and sad.
Although we have a lot more work to do, I am hopeful that religious liberty will be the rule, not the exception, in our nation’s military. As a proud Sikh American soldier, I will gladly bleed for the United States, but I respectfully request that I be allowed to practice my religion too. Like my forefathers, I’ll give up my life, but I will never abandon my faith.
Dr. (Maj.) Kamal S. Kalsi is a 13-year military veteran. He is EMS medical director at St. Clare’s Health System in Denville, N.J., and also in the Army Reserve.