Army investigation found no anti-Muslim bias while calling for greater sensitivity
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette | Published: June 16, 2019
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — When the story broke in March, an incident at Fort Carson was portrayed as a clear-cut example of anti-Muslim bigotry.
But a lengthy Army investigation released to The Gazette shows something far more complex: Army regulations clashing with Islamic concepts of modesty and a recent convert to the faith whose religious life conflicted with her military duties.
The Army debunked the discrimination claim, but investigators admit leaders need to learn more about the interaction with a faith that's unfamiliar to most Americans, and a source of contention for many soldiers.
The Army's investigation was triggered by a March 6 incident that occurred as soldiers from the post's 2nd Brigade Combat Team attended a suicide prevention class. Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos, a cook, was in the class along with one of her bosses, Command Sgt. Maj. Kerstin Montoya.
The sergeant major told investigators she spotted something amiss with Valdovinos' hair under a hijab, a head covering commonly worn by Muslim women.
"Even though Sgt. Valdovinos was wearing a religious head cover, I could see that the bulk of her hair did not meet regulatory standards," Montoya wrote, citing an Army rule that requires women to wear long hair in a bun.
Montoya talked to a chaplain and her boss, a female captain, before taking a step that wound up going viral worldwide: She took Valdovinos and the captain outside for a closeup inspection of the sergeant's hair.
Valdovinos removed her hijab as ordered, but then complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and its founder Mikey Weinstein, who launched a media offensive, with the Muslim sergeant as the star of the show. Newspapers as far away as Great Britain picked up the tale, along with television networks and websites by the dozen.
"I felt naked without it," Valdovinos told the Colorado Springs Independent. "It's like asking you to take off your blouse. It felt like I was getting raped, in a sense."
Weinstein called post leaders liars for their story about Valdovinos' hair.
"Fort Carson is simply, shamefully and dishonestly falsely reporting about this shocking incident of blatant Islamophobic bigotry perpetrated by one of its highest ranking NCO's on the installation," Weinstein said on his website.
"Their mendacious and twisted 'version' of what transpired is an absolutely repulsive exacerbation of an already horrific incident of racist anti-Muslim prejudice."
The headlines grew louder, and Valdovinos added to her claims. She alleged a pattern of anti-Islam bigotry that saw her insulted and disciplined while her unit was in Afghanistan last year, and got her reassigned to menial duties back at Fort Carson.
Col. David Zinn, who commanded the brigade, assigned Capt. Jeremey Kinder to investigate the conflagration, documents released to The Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act show.
Kinder conducted more than a dozen interviews in assembling a 67-page report. It cleared the Army of the discrimination claims but also showed the service has plenty of learning to do.
"I find that better communication with all parties involved would have de-escalated the situation and recommend that future inspections of a personal nature be conducted in complete privacy," Kinder wrote, adding that Army regulations and manuals for leaders address how to handle a hair-standards investigation involving a hijab.
He also found that nearly 18 years after 9/11 anti-Muslim feelings run high in the ranks.
"I find that Sgt. Valdovinos was subjected to improper comments by fellow soldiers, but I find evidence that suggests the command took appropriate steps to address these incidents," he wrote.
The Army has battled anti-Muslim bias since the early days of fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Troops commonly called their enemy "Haji," before leaders demanded the nickname, which denigrates the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, be stamped out.
The issue, Kinder found, is that Valdovinos wouldn't identify the troops who issued the insults, leaving commanders with little recourse.
The Army took longer to approve Muslim headgear than it did to move against anti-Islamic slurs.
While Muslim troops fought for decades to have the hijab approved for wear, the Army didn't authorize it until 2017. And it required that the soldiers comply with regulations even underneath their head covering.
"Hair underneath the hijab must be worn in a hairstyle authorized for the soldier," the Army said in paperwork accompanying the hijab rule change in May 2017.
Hair is a big deal in the Army, where sergeants are carefully trained to spot long locks and take immediate corrective action.
The Army's recruiting site tells would-be soldiers that a proper coiffure is one of the key skills soldiers are taught in basic training.
"You'll learn discipline, including proper dress, marching, and grooming standards," the Army says.
The mania over the hair is driven by two factors: First, the Army wants its soldiers to dress, look and fight according to the same rules. Leaders say that creates bonds between soldiers and discipline in combat.
Second, in the heat of battle, long hair can be a detriment, getting in a soldier's eyes as they aim a weapon, or getting in the way of a gas mask in the event of a chemical attack.
But, Kinder found, the Army needs to balance religious needs with its strict standards. The Islamic Library Project explains that the hijab's purpose is modesty.
Kinder found that making a soldier remove their hijab in public is problematic, and said commanders should "develop best practices," for similar incidents in the future.
Kinder also found that leaders did their best to accommodate Valdovinos' beliefs on the job.
One complaint from Valdovinos is that she was assigned a menial job after she complained about working around pork in the kitchen. Islam, along with Seventh-day Adventists, some Orthodox Christian faiths and Judaism consider pork taboo.
After Valdovinos complained, leaders made several attempts to accommodate her request. But even the salad bars on post contain bacon bits. And Valdovinos contended "the scent of it makes me ill," in a statement to investigators.
Valdovinos contended in a complaint that her reassignment to a supply room was an anti-Muslim attack.
Kinder found that leaders "acted appropriately" and that Valdovinos had willingly accepted the new job.
From the report to the media accounts, thousands of words have been spent on Valdovinos and Army tolerance of Islam.
But Kinder found that the conflict could have been avoided.
"All parties would have benefited from better communication," he wrote.
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