In rare accommodation, Army to allow Sikh officer to wear beard, turban
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 14, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Army granted a West Point-educated officer a rare religious accommodation that will allow him to wear a beard and turban, requirements of his Sikh faith.
Capt. Simratpal Singh, 27, was granted the appearance waiver last week that will allow him to grow his beard and hair and wear a turban through at least Jan. 8, Debra S. Wada, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, wrote in a Dec. 9 letter. Singh is the fourth Sikh soldier in recent years to be granted such uniform exemptions.
Wada wrote in her letter that she would determine next month whether Singh’s exemption would be made permanent and that it could “be revoked if required by military necessity.”
Singh first shaved his beard, cut his hair and removed his turban when he entered West Point with the class of 2010. In his letter seeking the religious appearance accommodations in October, he called his choice nearly a decade earlier to forego those religious requirements a “regrettable decision.”
“I am deeply, deeply grateful for all of the opportunities that the Army has given me – and I hope to serve a long and honorable career with the Army,” Singh wrote in his letter. “However, I have come to an impasse with respect to my conscience. I must move forward in my life while abiding by the tenets of the Sikh faith by maintaining unshorn hair and a beard, and wearing a turban.”
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that emerged in what is now India and Pakistan in the 15th century. Sikhs believe resistance to oppression is a religious duty, and military service was considered the highest honor for young Sikh men. When Britain granted India independence in 1947, Sikhs made up less than 2 percent of the population but half the Indian officer corps and one-third of the combat soldiers.
“For almost a decade, I have felt incomplete. I had given up a part of myself that I can no longer turn my back on,” Singh wrote in his letter.
Singh is stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va. He is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and was awarded a Bronze Star after leading a platoon charged with clearing roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
In the U.S. military, Sikhs have served in both World Wars, the Korean War and in Vietnam. Few Sikhs have served in recent decades, however, because of a 1981 policy mandating they cut their hair and beards. Last year, the Pentagon amended that policy, specifying that religious appearance accommodations would be granted unless the military demonstrated compelling reasons to deny them. Sikhs still must conform to regular uniform policy until they are granted a waiver.
Last month, 27 retired U.S. generals wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking him to entirely drop that ban. Other critics of policies that ban beards and turbans point to thousands of troops who’ve been exempted for shaving for medical reasons and special operators who have worn beards in some overseas missions.
“Anyone who observed our unshaven special forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won’t stop an American soldier,” said Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty. “Now the Pentagon just needs to make Capt. Singh’s exemption permanent. In fact, it should explain why it is using the beard ban to discriminate against any Sikh American.”
Carter, speaking last month at Harvard University, said the military must be fair to all religions, including Sikhs, but he did not directly address the issue of beards or turbans.
“Everybody who can contribute to our mission who can meet with our high standards and contribute to our mission – we need them,” Carter said. “It’s not just a matter of giving them the opportunity, it’s giving us the opportunity as a country to avail ourselves of their talent.”