Growing chorus for allowing Sikh Americans to serve in US Armed Forces with turban and beard
By Geeta Goindi
Arlington, Virginia, November 9, 2015 – In a profoundly moving and meaningful event for believers of all faiths, military service members of the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities partook in a formal wreath-laying ceremony to honor the service and sacrifice of US army veterans, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
It was the first time that such a special interfaith function was held, appropriately ahead of Veterans Day in America, thanks to the efforts of dedicated organizers: Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a turbaned US army doctor; the American Veterans Committee (AVC); and the Sikh Coalition.
It is noteworthy that Major Kalsi together with Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Corporal Simran Preet Singh Lamba are currently the only Sikhs who have been granted a special exception to serve in the US armed forces wearing a turban. All have won accolades for their service, including the Bronze Star which was awarded to Major Kalsi for his “exceptionally meritorious service as an emergency medicine physician” while deployed in Afghanistan. In its citation for his Bronze Star, the fourth highest combat award, the Army noted that he provided emergency care to over 750 soldiers and successfully resuscitated back to life two patients who were clinically dead on arrival from the only Army expeditionary hospital in Afghanistan.
At the ceremony, Major Kalsi told us, “We have come here today to pay tribute to all the fallen soldiers. Sikhs know what it means to sacrifice. In the World Wars, over 80,000 Sikh soldiers died while serving. So, today when we can’t serve, it upsets the entire community. It ruins our American foundation”.
We asked him, Is it correct to say that there is a ‘ban’ on Sikhs serving in the US armed forces? “Yes, there is a ban on the Sikh articles of faith”, he replied. “I got just a one-off exception or accommodation and then the two who came in after me – Captain Rattan and Corporal Simran Lamba – were also one-off exceptions. We still struggle to change the policy”, he said. “So, on this Wednesday, we will be appealing to the Pentagon, to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, to help us change the policy”.
At the time of going to press, some 27 retired generals dispatched a letter to the Department of Defense (DoD) joining a growing chorus urging that Sikh Americans be allowed to serve in the military with their turban and beard.
Regarding the letter, Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley of New York, a strong proponent of lifting the ban on Sikhs to serve in the US armed forces, noted, “The support for allowing Sikh Americans to serve in our military while adhering to their religious beliefs is overwhelming”. Last year, 105 Representatives, 15 Senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations signed similar letters.
Congressman Crowley underscored, “We are a stronger nation, and a stronger military, because of our rich diversity. Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our nation’s military – we should embrace this wish, not place restrictions on it”, he said.
“I will continue my efforts to end the presumptive ban on service by Sikh Americans so that those who want to serve, can serve”, the lawmaker pledged, adding, “It is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh Americans the rule, not the exception”!
In this regard, neighboring country Canada has led the way! Its new Defense Minister is Harjit Singh Sajjan, an India-born Sikh who has numerous military honors.
We asked Major Kalsi if his appointment would have an impact here in America, and hopefully serve as a wake-up call! “Most definitely!”, he answered. “It’s a natural progression for anybody to see a Sikh installed as the Defense Minister of Canada. It’s a natural progression to ask the question, Why can’t Sikhs serve in the United States military? It’s a shame that whatever policies were enacted in the 1980s are still in place today that prohibit Sikhs from being able to serve freely”, he said.
It was interesting to learn from Major Kalsi that there are “more Sikh women serving in the US military than men. Then we have members of the Sikh faith who don’t keep their turban and beard”, he told us. “I’ve had a number of them come to me and say, ‘If I keep my articles of faith, they are going to kick me out’.
It’s wonderful to have the genders represented”, Major Kalsi said. “It’s wonderful that we have so many different states represented in the military and today, we had members of the Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities, we had everybody come together and honor the sacrifices of our veterans”.
He recalled that when he was deployed to the front lines in Afghanistan to take care of wounded soldiers, right next to him was a Chaplain. “So, the military recognizes the importance of faith”, he said. “If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have put a Chaplain on the front lines of war. It knows that faith and religion matter. They matter just as much as the bullets and medicine matter to the front lines”.
About the American Veterans Committee, its President Saif Khan told us that the non-profit organization was launched in 2013 with a two-prong mission: to organize networking receptions, and help American veterans avail of employment opportunities; to be more inclusive and include all veterans from different parts of the world, connect them with American veterans, sparking new business opportunities and smart diplomacy.
“We’ve grown”, Khan said. “This is our first event at Arlington National Cemetery and we really hope to highlight the service and sacrifice of people of various religions who have served in the US armed forces. We hope to do it every year moving forward. We have most religions represented, we want to include everybody”, he emphasized.
Khan concurred that the ceremony conveyed a deeper message of allowing minorities to serve in the US armed forces and in this regard he mentioned that “the Sikh community in particular is having difficulty in serving. It is taking a very long time to get waivers”, he noted.
“The new Canadian Secretary of Defense has honorably served Canada. We could do the same here in the US and give opportunities to minorities”, Khan asserted, quoting Canada’s new Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who said, “Because it’s 2015″.