US military singles out bearded Sikh

Last month, Pentagon officials ordered CPT Simratpal Singh, a decorated West Point and Ranger School graduate, to submit to additional testing to determine whether he can wear his religiously-mandated turban and beard while in uniform.  Earlier this week, CPT Singh and members of his unit underwent a routine training exercise that tests a soldier’s ability to establish a good seal with his or her gas mask.  Like myself and countless other Sikh soldiers before him, CPT Singh was able to establish and maintain a good seal—but that wasn’t good enough for the military. 

Pentagon officials want CPT Singh to undergo a very extensive three-day testing with the helmet and gas mask so that they can determine if his religious articles of faith pose a hazard to good order and safety.  To be sure, there are legitimate arguments for safety and well-being that should not be ignored.  But when we start demanding that Sikh soldiers submit to additional testing that no other soldier must endure, then we create a situation that not only singles out and segregates them, but also bureaucratically pushes them away from serving the nation they love and call home.  Recognizing this as a religious freedom issue, the legal team from the Sikh Coalition, McDermott Will & Emery, and The Becket Fund, recently filed a lawsuit to protect CPT Singh’s ability to serve freely.   

How is it that the British, Canadian, Israeli, and Indian militaries are able to fully accommodate soldiers with beards and mustaches?  Interestingly, Canada’s newly appointed Defense Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, is also a turbaned and bearded Sikh who led security forces as a soldier under U.S. Command in Afghanistan. And for the record, he also established a good seal with his gas mask.  How can we justify the relaxed grooming standards for some, but deny them to others?   

There are lots of soldiers with beards.  Historically, some of our best generals sported facial hair that would make an SF operator jealous.  In modern times, the military has allowed facial hair and relaxed grooming standards for Navy Seals, Special Forces soldiers, and those with a medical necessity.  In fact, since 2007, over 100,000 soldiers have been granted permanent and temporary facial hair profiles.  Judge Howell stated in her written opinion that “Thousands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks.” 

Sikhs have served honorably in the US military since the early 1900s—with their religiously mandated turbans and beards.  More than 80,000 Sikh soldiers died fighting alongside Allied forces in WWI and WWII, but a policy change in the early 1980s effectively banned Sikh articles of faith from entering into the military.  In 2009, I became the first Sikh in nearly a generation to receive a religious accommodation that allows me to serve with my turban and beard, and more soon followed. 

We have deployed.  We have shown that we can present a neat and conservative appearance.  And we have all established seals with our gas masks during the standardized testing that the military requires all soldiers to go through during basic training.  Similar to the end of segregation of the 1950s or the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in recent memory, the boots on the ground that have served alongside us already know that Sikh beards are a non-issue. Their voices join 27 generals, 105 members of Congress, and 20 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, all of whom signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.

Pentagon Officials admitted that they would be spending over $30,000 in tax payer dollars for the three day testing for CPT Singh.  Under the current accessions process for a Sikh looking to join the military, he must submit an accommodation request up the chain of command, which is then sent all the way up to the G1’s office.  A single accommodation request requires hundreds of hours of man-power.  In an era of tight budgets, when we are struggling to provide basic care for our wounded veterans, such testing and processes are undoubtedly wasteful and abusive. 

Changing the current policy of exclusion and allowing religious freedom for American Sikh soldiers is the right thing to do because it represents our values as a nation.   The court’s decision to deny discriminatory testing for CPT Singh is a win for all patriotic Americans that value religious freedom and see diversity as a strategic imperative.

Kalsi served in Afghanistan in 2011, running a field hospital ER in Helmand Province. A major who received the Bronze Star, he serves in the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a disaster medicine expert in the Army Reserve and is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.