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Muslim US Army soldier says ‘forced’ to remove hijab – superiors respond

Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos, who filed complaint after she alleges her superior forced her to remove her hijab. (Military Religious Freedom Foundation/Released)
March 13, 2019

A Muslim soldier in the U.S. Army says she was forced by a superior to remove her hijab, but her story is being challenged by Fort Carson officials.

Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos contends that on March 6, Command Sgt. Maj. Kerstin Montoya grabbed her arm and pulled her into a room where she was forced to remove her authorized hijab, Colorado Springs Independent reported Tuesday.

The incident took place at a memorial chapel on Fort Carson, Colorado. Valdovinos said that Montoya, without explanation, demanded “You come with me,” escorted her to the back of the chapel, pointed to the hijab and said to remove “that.”

Valdovinos said she did as she was told despite it violating her religious beliefs, all to avoid consequences for failing to follow orders.

The next day, she filed an equal opportunity complaint at the base, likening her experience to “religious rape.”

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“I felt naked without it,” said of her hijab. “It’s like asking you to take off your blouse. It felt like I was getting raped, in a sense.”

She later contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), who is now demanding that Fort Carson take action against the superior.

“Fort Carson is simply, shamefully and dishonestly falsely reporting about this shocking incident of BLATANT Islamophobic bigotry perpetrated by one of its highest-ranking NCOs [non-commissioned officers] on the installation. Their mendacious and twisted ‘version’ of what transpired is an absolutely repulsive exacerbation of an already horrific incident of racist anti-Muslim prejudice, said a statement by MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein.

However, Fort Carson contested Valdovinos’ account, insisting that the incident was spurred by her violation of Army regulations.

“According to sources who were present, Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was visibly out of regulation,” said Brandy Gill, Public Affairs Chief at Fort Carson, in a statement provided by MRFF.

“The senior NCO did ask the Soldier to remove her hijab in order to verify whether or not her hair was within regulation. Upon removing the hijab, the Soldier’s leadership discovered that Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was completely down, which is not allowed while in uniform,” Gill’s statement added, citing Army Directive 2017-13 and Army Regulation 670-1.

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Gill noted that Valdovinos was counseled in private, in the presence of the female superiors, and was not told she would be prohibited from wearing the hijab.

Cpt. Brooke Smith, who witnessed the incident, issued a written statement that also challenged Valdovinos’ story, and corroborated the statement from Gill. Smith said Montoya simply tapped Valdovinos on the shoulder – not grab her arm as Valdovinos claims.

“Upon removing her hijab it was evident her hair was completely down,” Smith said in a statement reported by Army Times. “CSM Montoya told her to get her hair back in regulation and not let it happen again. At no point did CSM Montoya touch the soldier or yell at her (at all or within earshot of other soldiers).”

Valdovinos applied for a religious waiver in April 2018 to authorize her hijab. It was approved two months later, via a letter from Col. David Zinn, that said, “I approve the wear of a hijab in observance of her faith in the Muslim tradition … a copy of this approved religious accommodation will be filed in the Army Military Human Resource Record system (AMHRR) and will remain in effect throughout SGT Valdovinos’ career.”

In 2017, the Army issued a directive that permitted Muslim women to wear religious headscarves upon approval from the head of their brigade, according to Army Times.

At the time, Army Secretary Eric Fanning said the change was implemented “based on the successful examples of soldiers currently serving with these accommodations.”