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US Air Force grants religious waiver for Muslim airman to keep beard – first of branch’s kind

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, 821st Contingency Response Squadron aerial porter, is among the first to be granted a religious accommodation for a shaving waiver based on his Muslim faith after the Air Force released new guidance in 2016 to accommodate individuals with religious requests. (Tech. Sgt. Liliana Moreno/U.S. Air Force)
November 21, 2018

A California-based airman has become the first Muslim airman to receive a beard waiver after a 2014 policy.

Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, an aerial porter with the 821st Contingency Response Support Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, was granted a religious waiver permitting him to keep a beard due to his Muslim faith, according to an Air Force article published Friday.

The waiver was made possible by a 2014 Pentagon policy permitting service members to apply for an exception that would grant them permission to wear uniform-prohibited items if based on religious beliefs. This included items such as beards, headscarves and turbans.

However, the policy stipulated that waivers would be assessed on a case-by-case basis and were subject to denial of they were found to be interfering with the usual uniform or work duties, or otherwise posed as a risk or hazard.

Gaitan, 30, was raised Catholic but later began delving into Islam during a 2011 deployment to Turkey. He continued to learn and pursue the strengthening of his faith even after returning to the U.S., and later took an oath declaring his faith.

He said the beard represents the teachings of Islam and “the natural way man was created.”

“It is a constant reminder of our faith and who we are as Muslims,” he said.

Gaitan said he has received some negative treatment since growing his beard, but also experienced support from his colleagues.

“A month after I started growing my beard, someone shooed me away with their hand saying very negative things because I was a Muslim. A week later, another person from a different squadron felt comfortable enough to ask me if I had joined ISIS,” Gaitan said. “These two incidents weren’t the only ones. Earlier … someone openly questioned if I was a terrorist.”

Gaitan said his colleagues intervened and came to his defense, then reported the incident up the chain of command, who also provided support and reassurance.

“The incident shot straight to the commander, like a lightning bolt, and the following morning I was called into his office with the chief and first sergeant waiting for me,” Gaitan said. “In my entire career, I’ve never had a commander look me in the eyes like he did … his look, tone, words and posture were shouting at me, ‘Don’t worry, we have your back.'”

The unit commander held a meeting to reinforce the “zero tolerance” policy for discrimination, saying, “We all work for one Air Force, we serve the same country and we are part of the same family.”

Gaitan said he will never forget the support and brotherhood he felt after the incident.

“For seven years, I’ve heard negative things about my religion, but that day after the commander passionately defended everyone who feels they are ‘different,’ I walked out of there with a feeling I had never felt as a Hispanic Muslim Airman,” he said. “I finally felt like I was fully part of the Air Force family and that my peers and my leadership would fight to protect me.”

The headline of this article has been edited to reflect that this is the Air Force’s first beard waiver.