Sikh doctor gets Army OK keep turban, beard

By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 25, 2009

The Army has allowed a Sikh Army doctor to keep his turban and beard after an outcry by a Sikh advocacy group.

But if he is transferred to another command or deploys, he’ll have to apply for another waiver from the Army’s uniform policy, said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Garver.

“This accommodation does not constitute a blanket accommodation for any other individual; as each request must be evaluated based on its own unique facts and individual circumstances,” Army Maj. Gen. Gina S. Farrisee wrote in a letter to the soldier. Farrissee is the acting deputy chief of staff.

The Sikh religion requires men to wear turbans and beards and keep their hair unshorn. To Sikhs, cutting one’s hair is as serious an offense as adultery.

When Capt. Kamajleet Singh Kalsi joined the Army during medical school, his recruiter told him that his religious beliefs would not pose a problem.

But as he neared the end of his medical training, he was told he may have to lose his turban and beard. He asked for an exemption from the Army Graduate Medical Education Office, but he was denied after he wrote to the office in December.

In April, Kalsi applied for a “request for religious accommodation” through his chain of command, and he learned Friday it had been granted by the Army, said his attorney Amandeep Sidhu.

“This is a victory and it’s one we applaud the Army for making, but at the same time we look at a general policy that doesn’t currently allow Sikhs to freely serve – to walk up to a recruiting office and be able to enlist without going through the hoops that our client had to go through,” Sidhu said on Friday.

Sidhu said his law firm was approached about Kalsi’s case by the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group that was formed after two Sikhs were attacked in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I am overjoyed by the Army’s decision to allow me to serve my country,” Kalsi said in a Sikh Coalition news release. “Like the many Sikhs who fought before me, I know I will serve America with honor and excellence.”

The Sikh Coalition held a protest in April at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial against the Army’s policy that prevents Sikh soldiers from wearing turbans and having beards.

The group also filed a formal complaint with the Army and Defense Department inspectors general on behalf of Kalsi and 2nd Lt. Tajdeep Singh Rattan, a reservist training to be an Army dentist who is also seeking an exception to the Army’s policy on turbans and beards.

“I am willing to lay down my life for America. In return, I ask only that my country respect my faith,” Rattan said in April. “My turban and beard are not an option — they are in intrinsic part of me.”