Sikhs want U.S. Army to waive dress and appearance regulations
ARLINGTON, Va. – Seeing “Integrate the U.S. Army” on a protest sign recalls the civil rights struggles of African-Americans in the mid-20th Century. But on Tuesday, under a cold wet spring sky, more than a dozen Americans of a different minority, the Sikh faith, stood in front of the iconic Iwo Jima memorial to World War II with one simple request: Let us serve.
The Pentagon has informed two Sikh personnel in the Army Reserves, a doctor and a dentist, that they must remove their turbans and cut their hair when they are called into their regular Army service later this year, according to a Sikh advocacy group.
Capt. Kamaljeet S. Kalsi said the Army recruiters who approached him during his first year of medical school in 2001 said they wanted him, and his beard, turban and long hair, to serve in the medical corps.
Seven years later, Kalsi expects to begin the Officers’ Leadership Basic Course in July. But superiors in the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program told him last year that he may have a problem with these “articles of faith” and an Army medical advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General informed him he may face resistance over his turban and beard.
Kalsi wrote to commanders at the Army Graduate Medical Education Office in December 2008 asking for exemption, but was denied.
On Tuesday, the Sikh Coalition filed a formal complaint with the inspectors general of the Army and the Department of Defense on behalf of Kalsi and 2nd Lt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a Reservist since 2006. The group was formed after two Sikhs were attacked in Queens, N.Y., on the night of 9/11 as reprisals for the attack.
For Kalsi, whose family came to the U.S. in 1978, the issue is frustrating and confusing. He is the fourth generation to serve in allied militaries. His father and grandfather were both Indian Air Force veterans. His great-grandfather served in the British army.
“I can’t understand why my Army would keep me from serving,” Kalsi said.
Kalsi joined in 2001 after talking extensively about his religious beliefs with a recruiter. The recruiter told him, “Yeah, we have Sikhs in the military, don’t worry about it,” he said.
Kalsi jumpstarted his career with rotations in military hospitals at West Point and Travis Air Force Base, Calif., serving as active duty, in uniform with his turban, beard and long hair intact.
Sikhs point to a long military tradition in India, the U.S. and other allied countries. They are known as “the protectors of India,” Kalsi said, because they come from Punjab, a northern gateway border province of India and first line of defense against invaders. In World War II, 85,000 Sikhs died serving in Allied forces.
The Army banned turbans in the 1980s, but grandfathered those serving, and has made a few exceptions.
Today, there are a half-million Sikhs in the U.S., and the coalition’s executive director said U.S. policy seems hypocritical given that Sikh’s serve side-by-side with Americans abroad.
“The policy doesn’t make any sense because we have Sikh troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq as we speak with the militaries of Great Britain and, in Afghanistan’s case, with Canada,” said Coalition spokesman Amardeep Singh.
Turbans, long hair and beards are considered a mandatory religious uniform for all Sikhs. Keeping uncut hair is required according to the Rehat Maryada, the Sikh instruction for living. In the 18th century, Muslims forced Sikhs to convert by cutting their hair and removing their turbans, the group noted.
Of the four taboos listed for Sikhs, adultery is as forbidden as cutting one’s hair.
“The fact that cutting one’s hair is a moral transgression as serious as committing adultery speaks to the immense significance of uncut hair in Sikhism,” lawyers for the Sikh Coalition wrote in a letter to the inspectors general.
“The Army places a high value on the rights of soldiers to observe their respective religious faiths; however, the Army does not accommodate the exceptions for personal grooming standards for religious reasons,” said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Nathan Banks.
The restriction forces soldiers to meet “health, safety and mission requirements,” Banks said, and facial hair prevents an airtight seal on gas masks.
But lawyers representing the soldiers say the policy poses a “burden on their exercise of religion” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and has been unevenly applied given some Sikhs in the U.S. Army were allowed exceptions and served for decades.
Col. Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon, a Sikh, retired in January, one day after his 60th birthday, due to Army age restrictions.
“My battalion right now, which I trained, is in Afghanistan as a combat support hospital,” he said. “I ran the best 68-whiskey program,” referring to combat medics.
“I did all this, and these two young people can do the same, maybe better than me,” he added, because they sought out the Army and are eager to join.
The coalition’s complaint added: “Shutting Sikhs and other devout citizens out of our armed forces not only reinforces the stereotype of these groups as the ‘other’ but also robs them of an opportunity to integrate into American society. In addition, it is important that our nation’s armed forces reflect the diversity of its population.”
Rattan, who emigrated to the U.S., called the Army’s policy “deeply unfair” to ask him to choose between religion and country.
“I am willing to lay down my life for America. In return, I ask only that my country respect my faith,” he said. “My turban and beard are not an option – they are in intrinsic part of me.”
Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.