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USA American Sikhs Fight For The Right For Turban On Duty


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
American Sikhs Fight for the Right for Turban on Duty

by James Dao

The Sikhs of 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 Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi ( pictured), an American Sikh raised in New Jersey, signed up for the United States 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. 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 military.


"Folks say, 'If you really want to serve, why don't you cut your beard?' " said Major Kalsi, 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 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 September 11 attacks, Sikhs were attacked, and at least one was killed, by assailants who confused them with fundamentalist Muslims. Last year, a white supremacist shot to death six Sikhs in their gurudwara, 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 America, concentrated in California and New York. There are about 30 million Sikhs worldwide.

Until 1974, Sikhs were allowed to serve in the United States military with unshorn hair and beards. But in the 1980s, stricter rules regarding personal appearance were enacted. Sikhs on active duty at that time were allowed to keep their articles of faith, but future recruits were required to seek case-by-case exceptions. No one succeeded until Major Kalsi in 2009.

Petitioning can be time-consuming and difficult. And because accommodations are based partly on military necessity, recruits without special skills like being doctors or speaking foreign languages can easily be rejected. Moreover, exceptions are viewed as temporary, meaning Sikh soldiers can be ordered to cut their hair and shave their beards at any time.


Among the concerns raised by the armed services - all branches have rules similar to the Army's, according to the Sikh Coalition - is whether Sikh men can safely wear helmets and gas masks.

But Major Kalsi, who spent seven months in Afghanistan in 2011 running a field hospital in Helmand Province, said he routinely wore a helmet over his long hair, which he bound under a special wrap. He noted that the Israeli military, as well as bearded American Special Operations troops, had proved that gas masks worked over thick beards. Major Kalsi has even created his own military turbans, which bear his rank insignia and are made from the same camouflage material used in Army combat uniforms.


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
A turban looks good on a solider. This video of the Scots Guards Borderers shows the battalion returning to Dumfries, Scotland, from their tour of duty in Afghanistan.

At about 1.15 you will see a turbaned Singh marching in formation; then again at about 1.59 as the battalion stands at attention waiting for some sort of order to disband. Singh is to the extreme left, 2 or 3 rows back. Last time you will see him is a few seconds from the end of the video.

1 Scots homecoming parade Dumfries - YouTube

Turbaned soldiers are by now tradition in the UK, but not in the US. Please know that in the US there is also no similar tradition where a military unit returns as unit and marches to town, receiving the applause of townsmen and women. UK welcomes their own home with a parade and an official greeting.

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