Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Fitting Faith into the Army ; Dress Code Is Keeping Sikhs Who Want to Enlist out of the U.S. Military

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Fitting Faith into the Army ; Dress Code Is Keeping Sikhs Who Want to Enlist out of the U.S. Military

Article excerpt

A doctor who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan got a special exception from the U.S. Army to wear a beard and turban, and he is working to make it easier for other Sikhs to enlist.

The Sikhs of northwestern India have for centuries cherished their rich military history. Wearing long beards and turbans into combat, they have battled Mughals in Punjab, Afghans near the Khyber Pass and Germans in the bloody trenches of the Somme.

But when Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh raised in New Jersey, signed up for the U.S. Army, that tradition counted for nothing. Before sending him to officer basic training, the army told him that he would have to give up the basic symbols of his religion: his beard, knee-length hair and turban.

In good Sikh tradition, he resisted. Armed with petitions and congressional letters, he waged a two-year campaign that in 2009 resulted in the army granting him a special exception for his unshorn hair, the first such accommodation to a policy established in the 1980s.

Since then, two other Sikhs have won accommodations from the army. But many others have failed. And so now, as he prepares to leave active duty, Major Kalsi, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, is waging a new campaign: to rescind those strict rules that he believes have blocked hundreds of Sikhs from joining the U.S. military.

"Folks say, 'If you really want to serve, why don't you cut your beard?"' said Major Kalsi, a doctor who is the medical director of emergency medical services at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "But asking a person to choose between religion and country, that's not who we are as a nation. We're better than that. We can be Sikhs and soldiers at the same time."

At stake for the military is the uniformity in appearance that it deems necessary for good order and discipline.

"A neat and well-groomed appearance is fundamental to army service," said Troy A. Rolan, an army spokesman. "It is an outward symbol of a disciplined military."

But to Sikh advocates and their supporters in Congress, the policies governing appearance are as fundamentally discriminatory to them as racially segregated units were to blacks, combat prohibitions were to women and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was to gay men and lesbians.

"They love this country," said Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, who has been urging the Pentagon to change its rules regarding Sikhs. "If they want to serve, we should let them do it."

Sikh leaders cite an additional reason for their push. In the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sikhs were attacked, and at least one was killed, by assailants who confused them with fundamentalist Muslims. Last year, a white supremacist shot and killed six Sikhs in their gurudwara, or place of worship, near Milwaukee.

The more Sikhs wear military, police or firefighter uniforms, Major Kalsi reasoned, the less often Americans will see them as threatening outsiders. "When you see a Sikh firefighter save your daughter, you'll think, 'That's a member of my community,"' said Major Kalsi, a 36-year-old father of two.

Although there were Sikhs in the United States in the 19th century, their population grew rapidly in the 1980s after a crackdown against an independence movement in Punjab caused thousands of Sikhs to emigrate. Today the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, estimates that about half a million Sikhs live in the United States, concentrated in California and New York. There are about 30 million Sikhs worldwide.

The first Sikh guru was born a Hindu in the 15th century, but the monotheistic religion he founded was more democratic than Hinduism, rejecting caste and embracing worshipers of both genders and all races.

As the religion took root in what is today northwestern India, Sikhs formed their own militias to defend against marauding armies. When the British colonized the region, they recognized that fighting spirit and created Sikh battalions to carry the empire's banner across the globe. …

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