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
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