More bearded, turbaned Sikhs join Army as Pentagon reviews religious articles ban
WASHINGTON — Eight Sikh Army recruits have received waivers this year allowing them to maintain their religiously mandated beards and turbans in uniform, nearly doubling the number of observant Sikhs in the Army despite a decades-old policy barring visual symbols of faith.
The most recent religious appearance accommodations were granted in January and February, according to records reviewed by Stars and Stripes, just weeks after then-Army Secretary Eric Fanning simplified the process observant Sikhs and Muslims must follow to receive a waiver. This could signal a relaxing of the Pentagon’s ban instituted in 1981 on outward symbols of faith in uniform, which is being reviewed by the Defense Department and each of the military services, three defense officials said.
The Army has approved at least 17 exemptions for Sikh soldiers to maintain their unshorn beards and turban-covered hair since 2009, when it granted the first such request to Kamal Kalsi, a medical doctor who is now a lieutenant colonel.
Kalsi, who has partnered with the Sikh Coalition and other groups to advocate for Sikhs, said military service is a natural fit for many religious Sikhs. For Kalsi, a native of India who grew up in New Jersey, the military is also a family tradition. His father and grandfather served in the Indian air force and his great-grandfather served in the Royal British Army.
“Military service and service in general is such a big part of the Sikh community,” Kalsi said in a recent interview. “In taking my oath as an officer in the Army, the things that I swore an oath to are the same things that I was taught as a Sikh growing up – honesty, integrity, courage. These things are all part and parcel of being a Sikh and of being a good soldier in the U.S. Army.”
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