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Air Force grants beard waiver to Muslim airman

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, an 821st Contingency Response Squadron aerial porter at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., has become the first Airman to be granted a religious accommodation for a shaving waiver based on his Muslim faith.

LILIANA MORENO/U.S. AIR FORCE

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2018

Note: This article has been corrected.

WASHINGTON — The Air Force has quietly approved a request by a Muslim airman to grow a beard, making it one of the service’s first such religious accommodations for a follower of Islam, Air Force officials said.

Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, 30, was granted the appearance exception in August to grow a beard in keeping with his Muslim faith, officials said, but the Air Force only publicly announced his waiver two weeks ago in a public affairs-produced article published on the service’s website. Gaitan is an aerial porter assigned to the 821st Contingency Response Support Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., according to the Air Force.

The Air Force had reported Gaitan was the first Muslim airman to receive the religious accommodation for his beard. But Tuesday, Capt. Carrie J. Volpe, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Gaitan was not the first. Eight airmen, including Gaitan, have received the religious accommodation, with a ninth in the works, Volpe said.

Since 2014, the Pentagon has allowed servicemembers to appeal to military leadership for the right to wear certain items mandated by their religions that would not be allowed under standard grooming and appearance regulations of the services. The Army, for example, has allowed brigade commanders to determine whether soldiers may wear certain religious items, including beards and turbans for Sikh soldiers and hijabs for female Muslim soldiers. More recently, the Army approved a soldier’s request to grow a beard as part of his claim to follow a Norse Pagan religion.

While not all Muslim men wear beards, some of them believe facial hair is a requirement of the religion’s male followers.

Gaitan, who converted to Islam following an Air Force stint at a base near Izmir in Turkey in 2011, said his beard is in keeping with the following of the Prophet Muhammad.

“It is a constant reminder of our faith and who we are as Muslims,” he said, according to the Air Force article.

The airman said he had received some negative reactions since he began growing his beard, including questions from fellow airmen about whether he was a terrorist or had decided to join Islamic State. But others came to Gaitan’s defense, he said.

“The incident shot straight to the commander, like a lightning bolt, and the following morning, I was called into his office with the chief and first sergeant waiting for me,” he said in the article. “In my entire career, I’ve never had a commander look me in the eyes like he did … his look, tone, words and posture were shouting at me, ‘Don’t worry, we have your back.’ ”

After the meeting, the commander reminded the unit of the Air Force’s zero-tolerance policy on discrimination.

“I walked out of there with a feeling I had never felt as a Hispanic Muslim airman,” Gaitan said. “I finally felt like I was fully part of the Air Force family and that my peers and my leadership would fight to protect me.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

Correction: The Air Force had reported Gaitan was the first Muslim airman to receive the religious accommodation for his beard. But Tuesday, Capt. Carrie J. Volpe, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Gaitan was not the first. Eight airmen, including Gaitan, have received the religious accommodation, with a ninth in the works, Volpe said

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