Twenty-seven retired U.S. generals were signatories to a letter delivered Nov. 11 to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, urging him to create a blanket policy that would allow Sikh Americans to serve in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces with their religiously-mandated turbans and beards intact.
Army Major Kamal Kalsi – one of the first Indian Americans who was allowed to serve in the U.S. military beginning in 2009 without having to remove his articles of faith – spearheaded the effort by the Sikh Coalition and the McDermott Will and Emery law firm. Kalsi told India-West that this week’s letter was part of a continuing effort that initially began with sending letters to members of the House. The community activists then sent a letter to the Senate and held a congressional hearing last year on the issue.
The U.S. military has had a ban on turbans and beards since 1981; Sikh American activists say the regulation amounts to a presumptive ban on Sikhs serving in the U.S. military. In 2009, various branches of the Armed Forces began admitting service members with turbans and beards, but only on a case by case basis. Currently, only three soldiers serve in the U.S. military with their turbans and beards: Kalsi, Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, and Corporal Simranpreet Singh Lamba. Kalsi noted that the military has allowed accommodations for more than 100,000 soldiers to serve with medically-mandated beards.
The Sikh Coalition is urging Carter to create policy that would allow religiously-observant Sikh Americans to serve unilaterally without additional review. “The U.S. Department of Defense has taken important steps toward recognizing the importance of religious faith to the lives of our service members,” read the letter to Carter. “Nevertheless, obstacles remain for patriotic Sikh Americans who wish to serve in our nation’s military while maintaining their articles of faith.”
Kalsi said it took him a year and a half to go through all the procedural bureaucracy that has allowed him to serve in the Army with his articles of faith. “This is nothing new that we’re asking for,” stated Kalsi, noted that Navy SEALS and Special Armed Forces have served for years with beards.
Kalsi said he approached the retired generals one by one to enlist their efforts. “Once I shared my story – that I could wear a helmet and wear a gas mask without affecting my job – they all said ‘you’re right. This is a restrictive policy, and we need to change it.’” His first signature came from his old commanding officer in basic training, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.
In comments to the Wall Street Journal, Hertling said that when he heard about Kalsi joining basic training with his beard, he thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me; there’s no way.”
But he added that Kalsi “floored me. I realized I was pretty shallow in my approach of cranking out soldiers.” Hertling noted that Kalsi required no extra time for grooming and could seal a gas mask over his beard. Kalsi has been awarded a Bronze Star – the military’s highest honor – for serving as a medic in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, one of the ravaged nation’s most bloody regions.
“On Veteran’s Day, we honor Americans who have served our country, but it is also time to understand there are some Americans who still struggle for the basic right to serve,” said Hertling in a statement released by the Sikh Coalition.
“Sikh Americans have a proud history of honorable and selfless military service,” said retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jeffrey Kendall in a press statement. “A person’s faith should not create artificial barriers to recruitment and retention, especially when simple accommodations are both easily available and proven in combat,” he said.
Rep. Joe Crowley, D-New York, who has been working with the Sikh Coalition on the issue, said in a statement Nov. 11: “The support for allowing Sikh Americans to serve in our military while adhering to their religious beliefs is overwhelming.”
“We are a stronger nation and a stronger military because of our rich diversity,” said Crowley, who last year led an effort with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-New Jersey, to send a letter signed by 100 members of Congress to the Defense Department, urging the agency to update its appearance and grooming regulations to allow turbaned and bearded Sikhs to serve in the military.