In landmark decision, US military permits 28-year-old Sikh soldier to wear beard, turban
India At Large staff
In 2006, Captain Simratpal Singh, an observant Sikh who never had to cut his hair or beard, was in his first day at the West Point Military Academy. He still remembers how he felt when a military barber took a buzzer to his bearded face and the head of hair that he kept covered in a turban.
“It was excruciating,” Singh, 28, told the Daily News. “For 18 years of your life, you’ve had a certain image of yourself. All of a sudden, it’s shattered within 10 minutes.”
Ten years later, Singh, now an Army Ranger and Bronze Star Medal recipient, can finally reclaim that image.
In a landmark decision, the US military has granted a decorated Sikh-American officer a long-term religious accommodation allowing him to continue serving while maintaining his articles of faith of keeping a beard and wearing a turban.
The move makes Captain Simratpal Singh, a 28-year-old decorated combat veteran, the first active duty Sikh soldier to receive approval to maintain his articles of faith while actively serving in the US Army.
He had sued the Defence Department last month in a first of its kind lawsuit, saying he was being subjected to “discriminatory” testing because of his turban and beard. He said he was being asked to undergo additional testing for his helmet and gas mask.
In a decision on March 31, the US military granted him the long-term religious accommodation allowing him to continue serving his country while maintaining his articles of faith of keeping a beard and wearing the turban.
The Army granted the permanent accommodation, saying in a court document that it would only be revoked if the beard and turban affected “unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety”.
“My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream,” said Captain Singh after receiving the decision in this regard from the US military.
“My faith, like many of the soldiers I work with, is an integral part of who I am. I am thankful that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation,” said Singh, who will now continue in his battalion operations staff position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
According to the The New York Times, Debra S Wada, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, wrote in a memo to the captain that “Because of the Army’s strong interest in maintaining good order and discipline, the Army intends to develop clear, uniform standards applicable to soldiers who have received religious accommodation”.
Until those standards are in place, Singh will be expected to appear in a “neat and conservative manner with a black or camouflage turban”, she said.
The Sikh Coalition said Singh, who had graduated from West Point with honours in 2006, was forced to make the “untenable choice” between his religion and his career and had to cut his hair and shave his beard following failed attempts to obtain an accommodation.
Singh, who successfully completed a Bronze Star tour in Afghanistan and received numerous other military accolades in various military positions, then filed a religious accommodation request in October, 2015.
Pic courtesy: Jovelle Tamayo, The Sikh Coalition