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Army grants first waivers for 14 enlisting Sikh students to wear turbans, beards in basic training

Lamba, a Sikh, was granted a waiver by the Army to wear a beard and turban. (Susanne Kappler/WikiCommons)
May 14, 2019

For the first time, the Army is granting enlisting Sikh soldiers a religious waiver to keep their turbans and beards in basic training.

A Kings Park High School student in New York is one of 14 Sikh high school students who will be able to enlist in the Army and attend basic training with their traditional turbans and beards — the first ever waivers for enlisting Sikh soldiers, reported.

Manav Sodhi is among the first high school student to receive the religious accommodation. “I wanted to join the Army ever since I was a kid. My great grandfather served in the Army, and I wanted to follow his footsteps,” Sodhi said.

Sikh soldiers have served in the U.S. Army since World War I, but were only able to apply for religious waivers in 2017 to wear their beards and turbans. Since then, current Sikh soldiers applied for the waivers, allowing them to add the turbans and beards to their uniform.

Army Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi, president of the non-profit advocacy group that promotes Sikhism and military service, was the first to get a religious exemption in 2009, and said the latest enlistment waivers are a big step in religious accommodation.

“I was the first to get the accommodation for turban and beard way back in the day,” Kalsi said. “This is a new milestone.  It shows progress.”

“The Army changed its policy in 2017 to allow waivers for religious accommodation. That came after many, many years of effort. Right now, our focus is to help open doors in the other branches of service,” Kalsi explained.

Sodhi said he was deeply inspired by Kalsi, recalling, “My mother took me to an event at city hall where I met Lieutenant Colonel Kalsi for the first time, and he was in his Army uniform with his turban and beard. That was an amazing day for me because I realized then that I can freely practice my religion and serve my country too.”

Other military branches welcome Sikh men and women to serve but there have been few turban and beard waivers for religious accommodation, however, Sikh female service members do have the option of wearing the turban if they so choose.

Kalsi said, “Many of them bemoan the current policy that doesn’t allow them to keep their religious traditions.” He also said they would like to see a change in policy.

Kalsi added, “Wearing a beard and turban is critical because it is really part of our identity as Sikhs. It’s also part of our American upbringing to be able to practice our faith; you know religion freedom is a critical part of being an American. It’s important to fight for the things you believe in, and religious freedom is one of those things.”