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Sikhs Ask to Serve in Army Despite Rules on Attire

Arlington, Va. – Two Sikh men say they want to report for active duty in July even as they refuse to comply with the Army’s demands to cut their unshorn beards and hair and remove their turbans.
“I am willing to lay down my life for America,” said 2nd Lt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, one of the men who filed a complaint, on Tuesday (April 14). “In return, I ask only that my country respect my faith, an integral part of who I am. My turban and my beard are not an option — they are an intrinsic part of me.”
Rattan and Capt. Kamaljit Singh Kalsi are members of an Army program that trains medical personnel prior to active duty. Kalsi began the program in 2001 and said until now, his beard and turban haven’t been an issue. Rattan is currently still in training.
The New York-based Sikh Coalition filed formal appeals after religious accommodation requests were denied for Rattan and Kalsi. The group also filed complaints with the inspectors general for both the Pentagon and the Army.
Rattan and Kalsi were assured by military recruiters that their turbans and unshorn hair — which are articles of faith for Sikh men — “would not be a problem” when they were recruited to join the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program, which paid for their medical training in return for military service, the group said in a statement.
Kalsi said he began receiving “indications” that his appearance would be an issue last fall. “Everything I’ve been through with (the Army) these past seven years has indicated I would start serving come July. It’s been a bit of a shock to me,” Kalsi said.
Rattan, Kalsi and Harsimran Kaur, the legal director of The Sikh Coalition, all refused to comment on why they believed they would receive religious accommodations or who led them to that belief.
Lt. Col. Nathan Banks, an Army spokesman, said “the Army sympathizes with them; however, this is a military standard that has been placed on the books, and we have to follow (the) standards.”
Banks said turbans and other “conspicuous” religious articles have been prohibited by the Army since 1986, but Sikh soldiers who were enlisted prior to that date were allowed to stay. Two Sikh colonels — one a doctor and the other a dentist — retired within the last two years after serving in the army for 25 years, the group said.
There are more than 26 million Sikhs worldwide, and about 500,000 in the United States, according to The Sikh Coalition. Sikhs are renowned for serving in the military; though they make up less than 2 percent of the population in India, Sikhs make up more than 30 percent of the Indian army, according to Armadeep Singh, executive director of The Sikh Coalition.
“Though my parents left their country decades ago, I want to keep our tradition of military service alive here in my home,” Kalsi said.
By Karin Hamilton
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • cknuck

    What a interesting article. I hardly know how to respond on the one hand being in the military I know the importance of adhering to code but on the other hand what touching passion. My heart goes out to these men.

  • nnmns

    It would seem Sikhs would be valuable additions to the military. As would gays. The armed services need to loosen up on unimportant constraints like these rather than on restrictions about criminal records and education.

  • Henrietta22

    There are reasons for hair being kept short, and articles of clothing, such as turbans not being added to carry germs when you are around the medical profession. You also wouldn’t want to have beards, and turbans getting caught in equipment you might have to use. They couldn’t fly because there are helmets to be worn. If they sat at a desk it probably wouldn’t matter. If they wore their turbans in battle they would be a sitting duck for a bullet and those around them, too.

  • nnmns

    Well Sikhs have been in a lot of battles. I don’t know how they might be able to deal with the helmet issue. But there should be a solution.

  • pagansister

    It’s a volunteer Army…and these men volunteered…and as far as I can tell from the article, would make a valuable asset to the Army. After all the work to train them, why all of a sudden would their turbans, beards and hair be a problem?? They should be allowed to stay and contribute.

  • rmcq

    Some military’s do allow turbans and even issue them. (Canada)

  • Jas Bains

    The Canadian and British army both accept and issue turbans (camo green colour) to Sikhs who wish to join (and many do). The following site will give some insights to Sikhs wishing to join the Canadian Armed Forces.

  • jestrfyl

    The words “accomodation” and “US military” are pretty much never in the same sentence in a positive way. I would not expect the ancient oak of the military to bend for as little a breeze as this. I do hope they can find appropriate ways to enable these men to serve.
    Sadly, military recruiters are making certain over-the-internet, medication for amorously inclined men, sales representatives look like paragons of honesty, virtue, and integrity. There was an article recently in Time magazine about the increasing incidences of suicide among the recruiters. The pressure to sign people up has led to any number of baseless promises, false statements, and overlooking some significant issues. At this point I would counsel any prospective recruits to look carefully, speak to someone already serving in the capacity they are expecting, and to realize that even if it is “in writing” it is meaningless.

  • Henrietta22

    You’re right nnmns, I’ve seen Sikhs in battle on camels. If the English have dark turbans and the Sikhs don’t have to have white ones, there you are! Knocks that objection out. As far as germs the medical have already forgotten that one, thought someone would have caught me on that, long hair shows up in hospitals now. The helmets problem could be met by wearing a larger one. I would be happy to see a Sikh coming to save my life in whatever predicament I would be in, his beard or turban wouldn’t bother me at all. Anyway they said that their beards and turbans would be allowed when they were recruited, so they have to do it. No one would have gone through seven years of training if they hadn’t been assured of this important point for them.

  • cknuck

    I would love to see anybody battle on a camel today. That’s funny.

  • alina

    I’m interested to see how this will be resolved.

  • jestrfyl

    The last time there were camels in the military in or for this country was the Civil War, when Lincoln was given a company / herd / collection of camels to fight against slavery. Their descendents are in the desert sw to this day. But they were not pressed into active military duty. The way oil is getting used up, there may yet come another day when wars are fought on camel back, unless we wise up.

  • Henrietta22

    After all these years Jestrfyl the camels wouldn’t stand for being used for war games!! I thought it was funny, too ck. I was picturing Lawrence of Arabia.

  • Walter Scott McNair

    I converted to Sikhism in the United States Army around 1973. After I converted I was sent to mental hospitals. At Walter Reed Army hospital they were very nice to me and I gave a lecture on Sikhism to the patients. The shrink who sent me to walter reed reported I wore a rag on my head and an untrimed beard. The rag was my turban and Sikhs do not trim the beard. The report did not mention I was a Sikh, walter reed thought I had better watch out, someone must of wanted me out on a medical discharge instead of taking me to court about my religion.
    I was diagnosed as nothing wrong with me at Walter Reed but those who sent me gave me the label of acute paranoid skitzaphranic. Those who sent me also told me the base commander wanted me out of the army. I did not repeat this to anyone because I wanted to stay in the army. I read paranoid people thought important people were after them so this kind of thing would fit into the diagnosis. Another earlier hospital I went to was at Fort Dix. There a couple of guys took me into a small room put me in a headlock with my arm behind my back and gave me some pain, telling me what they were going to do to me if I did not shave. It included dry shaving my beard off with a razor and no shaving cream, they were going to make me feel the pain. Not wanting to look like I had delusions I did not tell anyone at the hospital I was afraid of them all. I was a teenager and very scared. I did tell my Sikh friends and the Indian Sikhs sent lots of letters to all kinds of people in the army. They never did dry shave me I’m thankful for the letters. I heard they even had protests about it in India. After Fort Dix I was then sent to Walter Reed. I was put in a straight jacket and they did not tell me what they were going to do to me or where I was going. A helicopter picked me up. After the Fort Dix experience I thought they might be going to kill me and was very scared. But the GI’s in the helicopter were very nice to me, they let me out of the straight jacket after we were airborne and told me we were headed to walter reed.
    At the trial I won. Judge said it was my constitutional right to practice my religion. My commanding officer who was charging me with disobeying a direct order to shave, take off the turban, and get a hair cut was a great asset to my side. He had a very high opinion of me, in his opinion if all the troops worked as well as me the army would be a much better place. All of those testifing how I disobeyed the order thought i was just a great worker and liked me. I think their prejudice in favor of me helped my side of the case. They gave so much good character references for me we did’t need anyone else of our own to tell the judge how great a job I was doing in the Army.
    My commanding officer was just doing his duty in prosecuting me. I think he was pleased by the outcome. He told me he did not mind me being in the Army but had a not very high opinion of many other troops and thought if I was allwowed to stay many of them would become Sikhs just so they would not have to cut their hair etc. After the trial none of them became Sikhs.
    In my army school I did very good and recieved a letter of commendation when I finished my first duty station in TAiwan. Black officers must of been having a hard time in those days. They would tell me I was the only white guy who knew what it was like to be black in the military. After the trial I was probably having much less of a hard time than they imagined. Somehow I got lot of my superiors to like me. In Taiwan I did not want to give to a cherity the army was collecting money for. I was the only one not giving a contribution. The top sargent in Taiwan called and asked me too. I said no. I knew him and had talked with him before. He told me he would give me the money to make the contribution. I said I couldn’t let him do that, but for him I would make the contribution on my own. When I got to my next duty station in Arazona a very important sargent told me the guy who I made a contribution for was his friend and wanted to make sure no one gave me a hard time because I was a good guy. My dad was visiting me in Arazona and I was raking this sargents lawn, I put my dad to work with my raking to be nice to the sargent who was looking after me. Other people looked after me too. My commander Emmit Page was also very nice to me he is a great guy and I will alwas remember him. He is a black guy, black officers in the army were very considerate towards me.
    I used the gas mask getting an experience with tear gas. I didn’t have any problems with it. Isreal has modified gas masks for traditional jews with big beards in the military. We could import them for any Sikh who might need this minor modification. With a small turban a Sikh soldier could use a regular helmet. This would take care of the other problem. If I was in the army again I would want to wear a helmit whenever I was in a situation where one is important for safety.
    One little change, a modified gas mask, a Sikh could get a little turban pro bono(free, or on the house). Maybe the Sikh community could pay for the modified gas mask if needed. In my case the army one was fine.
    Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans(book title). The reaction to the Chinese immigrants after the civil war was very poor. The california constitution was changed to outlaw the employment of Chinese in state and local government. Blacks were imported to california to take over jobs in industry formerly occupied by the Chinese etc. The author of Driven Out made the case that the prejudice was cultural. The chinese immagrents had long pigtails and wore different cloths than the whites. The blacks did not have these problems. California would boycott companies who employed chinese, many places including San Francisco burned down china town in hopes they would not come back in an attempt to get rid of them all, ethnically clean the west(other states did similiar things to the chinese).
    The army’s reation to the Sikhs is a cultrural, the gas mask or wearing a helmit could be taken care of by the sikh himself with a small turban and modified Isreal gas mask. The army says the turban and beard is a religious symbol. The Sikh religion requires the turban and uncut hair to be a sikh. When they cut their hair and stop wearing a turban they are no longer Sikhs.

  • pagansister

    Thanks for your story, Walter S. McNair.

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