Belief Beat

The Associated Press reports that Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan has become the first Sikh in 25 years to join the U.S. Army, thanks to an exception that allows the Indian American to retain his religiously-mandated turban and beard.

About 300,000 Sikhs live in America; until 1984, a uniform policy exception had allowed them to serve in the military without sacrificing their turbans and beards. The AP story explains that now “officials can issue individual waivers … after considering the effects on safety and discipline.” In Rattan’s case, he showed that he could fit his turban under a helmet, and his beard under a gas mask. Another Sikh, Dr. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, will attend basic training this summer after completing an emergency medicine fellowship.

Two reasons I find this story particularly interesting:

1) Sikhs make up a major chunk of the armed forces in India — no slouch in military matters — so the whole turban/beard safety issue seemed like a moot point anyway. (The AP story notes that, before the 1984 change, Sikhs served in the U.S. military during every major 20th century conflict.)

2) Ever since 9/11, American Sikhs have had an uphill battle because people have confused the men’s appearance with Osama bin Laden’s turban and beard. (Community leaders in Queens, N.Y., which has a thriving Sikh neighborhood, showed me the style differences, but a casual observer wouldn’t notice them.) Sikh temples were vandalized and several men have been attacked and killed by people who mistook them for “terrorists.” So, seeing Sikhs start serving in the U.S. Army again, fighting against real terrorists, is a neat twist.

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