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With beard, turban exemption granted, Sikh Army captain plans to 'move forward’

Army Capt. Simratpal Singh.

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By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 1, 2016

WASHINGTON — Army Capt. Simratpal Singh expressed relief Friday that he can continue his “lifelong dream” of military service while properly observing his religious obligations as a Sikh.

The Army has granted the West Point-educated engineering officer a long-term religious accommodation allowing him to wear a beard and unshorn hair under a turban, requirements of his Sikh faith.

“The best thing about it is I can just go back to doing my job,” Singh said Friday in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “I can put all this stuff behind me and move forward and just go back to being a regular soldier.”

Singh, a Ranger-qualified officer who earned a Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan, received permission to abide by those tenets of his faith as long as they do not potentially impair his safety under hazardous conditions, Debra S. Wada, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, wrote in a memo released Friday.

Singh is the first active-duty Sikh soldier to be granted such a long-term waiver.

‘Excruciating’ choice to shave

The 28-year-old captain had initially been granted a temporary religious accommodation in December after filing an official request in October 2015, when he began growing his beard and hair for the first time since entering the U.S. Military Academy in 2006. He’d sought a religious accommodation at that time, but it was ultimately denied.

After arriving at the academy, Singh said he made the “excruciating decision” to allow his hair to be cut and his beard to be shaved.

“For a couple days … it was hard for me to look in the mirror,” he said. “Up until that point, I had a certain image of what a Sikh is supposed to be and of how I’m supposed to live my life. To have all of that shattered in literally a couple of minutes — it was hard to take in.”

For nine years, the decision weighed on Singh until he was advised that he could file an official request for religious accommodation following a change in Defense Department policy in 2014. That new policy allowed such requests to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and stated the military should grant religion-based exemptions to uniform and grooming standards as long as they do not impact military readiness.

Wada, citing that policy, wrote in her memo that she would reevaluate her decision in one year and reserved the right to “withdraw or limit” Singh’s exemption “for reasons of military necessity.”

Exemption conditions

In her memo, Wada set several conditions for granting the accommodation.

Singh’s beard and hair must be worn in “a neat and conservative manner that presents a well-groomed appearance,” she wrote. 

The captain must roll and tie his beard to a two-inch length limit while in garrison and one-inch length for field training, physical training or when deployed. Singh’s hair will not be allowed to fall to his ears or eyebrows and must not touch the collar of his uniform, Wada wrote.

Singh will be allowed to wear a black or camouflage-pattern turban in uniform unless his assignment requires he wear a helmet, she wrote. He will be allowed to wear an “under turban” beneath his helmet.

Wada expressed concern in her letter about Singh’s safety equipment — specifically his helmet and gas mask — working properly with his beard and hair. Singh’s chain of command, she wrote, would need to evaluate them if he is deployed to a hazardous location.

Singh said Friday he has “absolutely no concerns whatsoever” about the compatibility of his equipment with his beard, hair and turban.

He recently passed standard gas mask and helmet evaluations with his unit, he said. He’s completed a rifle marksmanship course in full kit and gone through a tear gas chamber “with absolutely no problems.”

“From where I stand, I don’t have any issues about being able to meet Army readiness and Army safety standards,” Singh said. “If I fail to meet an Army performance standard then ... please reexamine my accommodation, take another look at it. But, so far, I have not, and I do not plan on failing any Army performance standards.”

Wada directed his command to make quarterly assessments of his accommodation’s potential impact on his unit “because of the Army’s interest in mission accomplishment, which requires military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety on both the individual and unit levels.”

Again, Singh expressed no concerns about that stipulation. In fact, the captain said he has not received negative feedback from anyone in his battalion at Fort Belvoir, Va., where he is a staff operations officer.

“I’m a little bit surprised, but it’s been remarkable,” Singh said. “I’m sure, perhaps, other soldiers have their own opinions and they’re just being professional, but as far as my working relationship with everyone I have interacted with in the battalion, it has been absolutely professional and there have been zero issues.”

He said he has purposefully ignored social media comments about his attempts to attain an appearance waiver.

‘Long, proud military tradition’

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. Sikhs fought in the U.S. Army in both World Wars, the Korean War and in Vietnam. But few Sikhs have served in recent decades because of a 1981 policy mandating they cut their hair and beards. The Pentagon has since amended that policy, specifying that religious appearance accommodations would be granted unless the military demonstrated compelling reasons to deny them.

Singh hopes his recent struggles for an appearance waiver will help the military streamline the religious accommodation process, so more Sikhs can serve in the future.

“Sikhs have a long, proud military tradition,” he said. “They’re warriors and loyal people. Why would a Sikh be banned from joining the Army? That makes no sense.”

Three other Sikh soldiers, all serving in a reserve capacity, have been granted similar accommodations. Three more Sikhs, who recently enlisted and are represented by the Sikh Coalition, filed a lawsuit Tuesday that demanded the military grant them the same accommodations before they report to initial entrance training, where without the waivers they will be forced to cut their hair and shave. All three enlistees are scheduled to attend basic combat training in May and have filed official religious accommodation requests.

“Captain Singh’s case is a painful study in the onerous hurdles for observant Sikh-Americans who want to serve their country,” said Amandeep Sidhu, one of the attorneys representing Singh and the other Sikh soldiers. “With this historic accommodation, we hope that the U.S. military will finally move past protracted, case-by-case religious accommodations and recognize that the time for permanent policy change is now.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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