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US Air Force permits Sikh airman to wear turban, long hair & beard for first time

Air Force uniforms hang in the base resale shop's uniform section at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. Sept. 4, 2018. The base recently converted the old consignment shop into a resale shop for the community to buy and donate quality used clothing and supplies. (2nd Lt. Alejandra Fontalvo/U.S. Air Force)
June 10, 2019

An airman of the Sikh faith received permission from the U.S. Air Force to openly practice his religious dress and grooming rituals while serving the country.

Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, a crew chief at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, received a religious accommodation to openly wear his beard and long hair tucked under a turban, according to the Air Force Times.

The accommodation was granted to Bajwa in March following a request supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance. The request took six months to get approved.

Bajwa, first-generation American, joined the Air Force in 2017, but was unable to practice his Sikh beliefs while in the military.

“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation. Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity,” he said.

It is customary for male Sikhs to wear a turban and since the Rehat Maryada code of conduct and conventions forbids males to cut their hair, which they normally wear in a bun under the turban. The men are also not allowed to shave.

Until now, it was impossible to follow the code of conduct uniform and grooming practices since they went against Air Force regulations.

The ACLU said, “Even though Sikhs have long served in the armed forces of some of our closest allies — including Canada, Great Britain, and India — opportunities in the United States military today have been uneven at best,” CBS News reported.

The ACLU said having this religious accommodation approved is a “milestone that was made possible by their lawsuit, filed in 2015,” CBS added.

Sikh American Veterans Alliance, Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi, the president of SAVA said, “This is a one-off individual accommodation and we’re looking forward to the day when Sikhs can walk into the Air Force recruiting office and join just like any other American, not have to choose between serving and their faith.”

Last year, the Air Force approved the first beard waiver for a religious accommodation to a Muslim. The only other exceptions were medical waivers and for Air Force Reservists serving less than 30 days.

The Air Force has maintained that allowing grooming and uniform accommodations would cause harm or obstruct the military’s ability to achieve its mission.

The Air Force has made some recent changes, allowing a number of different female hairstyles and permitting males to wear earrings while off-duty and in civilian clothing.

In 2018, the first female Air Force officer was granted permission to wear a hijab during her training and service, with some efforts by the ACLU.