US Army should let Sikhs serve, turban and all (COMMENTARY)

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Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.” Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.” Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

(Twenty-seven retired U.S. generals delivered a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Wednesday (Nov. 11) asking that the military drop its ban on religious articles of faith, including the turban. This is one general’s reasoning.)

(RNS) One of the greatest strengths of our U.S. military is that it is a diverse institution that strives to reflect and project the best of our core values as a nation.

As a company commander in 1956, I was tasked with overseeing and training the first fully desegregated tank unit in the state of Delaware.

While the executive order for desegregation had been issued eight years earlier, many Americans throughout the state were still deeply divided on the issue by the time it came to be implemented. For me, desegregation of the military was always a very simple decision. We’re all equal in the eyes of God and under the law.

Sixty years later, Sikh Americans face a similar struggle. Despite the fact that Sikhs have contributed to the American fabric for generations, our nation’s armed services ban Sikh Americans from serving because they do not cut their hair or shave their beards.

The Sikh religion is a faith that emphasizes service, love and justice. Sikhs display their commitment to these ideals by maintaining unshorn hair, which includes beards and uncut hair that is wrapped in a turban.

Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.” Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.” Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks


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While militaries around the world have recognized and embraced the Sikh religious practices, since 1981 the U.S. military has had a ban in place that prohibits Sikhs from serving without abandoning their faith.

In the U.S., being forced to choose between one’s faith and service to our country is a choice that no American should have to make.

There are three Sikh American soldiers — with turbans and beards — who are serving in the U.S. Army. These three individuals — Maj. Kamal Singh Kalsi, Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Spc. Simranpreet Singh Lamba — have deployed and served in operating positions, received awards and promotions, and have helped protect and save the lives of fellow Americans.

However, each of these soldiers had to fight an incredibly arduous battle and seek special accommodations from the military to serve.

The Pentagon amended its religious accommodation policy last year, but rather than fix this problem the Pentagon exacerbated it. Now Sikhs must cut their hair and shave while waiting for the accommodation process to be approved. This process can take months and is determined on a case-by-case basis.


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The core argument against Sikhs serving today is one that focuses on the disruption of unit cohesion. Sadly, this argument is similar to the dissent I heard in Delaware nearly 60 years ago. My fully desegregated unit had no problems with integration whatsoever and went on to successfully serve for years after I left the unit.

Based on my firsthand experiences and observations, desegregation did not threaten the esprit de corps, nor did it pose a threat to the stability of our military. The same logic applies today for our Sikh-American neighbors, classmates and colleagues, who deserve and rightfully demand the same opportunity.

Major General William Francis Ward, Jr. served as Chief of the Army Reserve from 1986-1991. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition

Maj. Gen. William Francis Ward Jr. served as chief of the Army Reserve from 1986-1991. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition

Today, 27 generals, including me, signed a letter demanding that the Pentagon drop the ban. These letters add to the growing chorus, which was previously joined by 105 members of Congress, 15 senators and 20 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, all of whom also signed letters last year in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.

Not allowing minorities to serve in the military because of the color of their skin was simply the wrong thing to do, and disallowing minorities to serve today because of their faith is absolutely no better. It goes against the values that each and every American service member has fought to protect, and it runs counter to the ideals that we as Americans cherish most.

(Maj. Gen. William Francis Ward Jr. served as chief of the Army Reserve from 1986-1991.)

YS/MG END WARD

  • Larry

    The most ridiculous part of the turban ban is the fact that Sikhs had been serving in the British Army since the mid 19th Century, turbans and all. Sikh units distinguished themselves in WWII against the Japanese in the Burma Campaign as the vanguard of the Allied forces at Imphal. In the Indian military Sikh units have been particularly distinguished.

    One can’t say that the turban impedes the ability of Sikhs to behave as soldiers in combat conditions. They had proven over and over again that was never the case.

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  • Bernardo

    Facial hair and turbans interfere with the protection afforded by protective/gas masks and therefore are not allowed in the US military of any branch. Said branches are all-volunteer. No one is making a Sikh join. They know the rules before they join.

  • Canadian here. I’m surprised such a ban exists. Doesn’t this violate one’s religious rights? Fun fact: Have you seen our new Defence Minister in Canada? He’s Sikh. Wears a turban, and it certainly hasn’t affected his ability to serve. Hope the US government makes this right soon.

  • Bernardo

    Melissa,

    And being a Sikh, your defense minister hates Islam, another point in his favor.

  • Larry

    Bernardo, you have no clue what you are talking about. British, Canadian and Indian militaries have had Sikhs in their ranks for many many years.

    They were certainly capable of serving in a modern battlefield before against the Turks, Afghans, Imperial Germans, Nazis, Imperial Japanese, Pakistanis, and in a good % of UN peacekeeping missions. At least 1 of those conflicts involved chemical weapons. Canadians even had produced gas masks which work with beards. Military chemical warfare suits cover the whole body these days (a gas mask is no protection from nerve/blistering agents).

    Like many arbitrary bans, this one is based entirely on supposition notwithstanding clear and unambiguous facts to the contrary.

  • Bernardo

    Larry,

    “Excluding limited exemptions for religious accommodation, the United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps have policies that prohibit beards on the basis of hygiene, the necessity of a good seal for chemical weapon protective masks, the official position that uniform personal appearance and grooming contribute to discipline and a sense of camaraderie.

    All branches of the U.S. Military currently prohibit beards for a vast majority of recruits, although some mustaches are still allowed,[22] based on policies that were initiated during the period of World War I.”

    Basic training requires tear gas exposure to learn that a protective/chemical mask works. Facial hair prevents it from working. And turbans also might be an issue in making a tight seal via the supporting head bands.

    Bernardo, former 1st Lt. US Army Chemical Corps.

  • SoonerArrow

    As a ten-year U.S. Army veteran and a religous agnostic, I believe that Sihk’s should be allowed to both grow their beards and wear their turbans. There are ways to wear a gas mask with a beard, so this argument is a non-starter with me. The U.S. Navy allows for service members serivng aboard ships and submarines to sport a beard, so it’s not really a deviation from existing rules and regulations. Also, the diversity of thought brought by other service member’s religions, cultures and beliefs have mostly been very good things for our service members. Plus, it shows that in the U.S. we at least try to be inclusive off all people when it comes to defending this great country of our.

  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Bole so Nihal – Sat sri Akal.

  • Larry

    Bernardo, your need to ignore 150 years of service by Sikhs in 3 modern armies, turbans and all, renders your supposition a non-starter. If these religious accouterments were so detrimental, they would have been banned by the military forces of 3 nations with a much much greater Sikh population than the US.

    Please by all means pretend the UK, Canada (or even India) do not have a modern military. Besides, a former 1st Lt is scarcely going to be a greater authority than 27 retired Generals. People who have been in the service a lot longer and made more of a career of it than yourself. Your authority on the subject is minuscule in comparison to theirs.

  • Bernardo

    US Navy regs on facial hair etc. Fortunately, the US Navy is not influenced by the military’s of other countries that are no longer first rate and who have forgotten the effects of chemical agents in warfare. And the 27 retired generals? They also apparently have forgotten their tear gas chamber experiences. I have not.

    http://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/support/uniforms/uniformregulations/chapter2/Pages/2201PersonalAppearance.aspx

    More on the situation at:

    http://www.npr.org/2015/06/05/412274015/why-are-only-three-observant-sikh-men-serving-in-the-u-s-military

    And then again, Sikhs have a deep hatred for anything Islamic so there is a good side to all of this as long as they take on said Muslims without their beards.

    Then there is the religion itself:

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism…

  • Bernardo

    Continued from above:

    Of course, Christians who make up the greater part of the US military, have some very absurd beliefs too. : )

  • Bhullar

    More than 100 thousands sikh fight during ww2 and ww1 for Allies and I think United States need to change law and let Sikhs enter in us army sikhs are the one who won Afghanistan in 18cenutry without heavy guns . Bole so nihaal

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