Crowley Urges Defense to Allow Turbaned Sikhs in U.S. Military

By Sunita Sohrabji

U.S. Army Major Kamaljit Kalsi
U.S. Army Major Kamaljit Kalsi is shown here with his wife Chinar and their two children before his 2011 deployment to the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where he headed up a field hospital. (Ranjeet Kalsi photo via Facebook)

Rep. Joe Crowley, D-New York, announced July 15 that he will send a letter to Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to allow all Sikhs to serve in the U.S. military, regardless of whether they keep their articles of faith.

Crowley is circulating a letter among members of Congress, which he plans to send to Hagel by July 19 after receiving sufficient signatures from other members of Congress, Kate Winkler, Crowley’s chief of staff, told India-West. Winkler said she has not been able to gauge interest in the letter, since Crowley had only just started his efforts.

“This is an effort whose time has come. Sikh Americans have served honorably in the U.S. military in the past and they are doing so right now,” Crowley told India-West in an e-mail. “We know Sikhs can serve seamlessly alongside their colleagues – it’s happening both here and in other militaries throughout the world.”

“I believe now is the time to make it possible for qualified Sikhs to serve once and for all,” said the congressman.

Crowley’s letter to Hagel requests the Defense Department to modernize its regulations to allow turbaned and bearded Sikhs to serve in the military.

“Patriotic soldiers wear turbans and maintain beards in a neat and conservative manner, both in accordance with operational requirements and their Sikh religious beliefs. They are also able to wear protective equipment, including helmets and gas masks, in conformity with safety requirements,” noted Crowley in his letter. He pointed out that Sikhs had served in the U.S. Army since World War I, and that the United Kingdom, Canada and India allow turbaned and bearded Sikhs to serve in their forces and urged Hagel to end a presumptive ban on Sikhs in the U.S. military.

Since 1981 Sikhs who wear turbans and beards have been banned from U.S. Armed Forces, unless they remove their religiously-mandated articles of faith. In 2009, the U.S. Army made a landmark decision, allowing Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi, a U.S. Army doctor, and Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan to serve with their articles of faith intact. The Army noted that this was a one-time accommodation and that future requests would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

In 2010, the Army accommodated Specialist Simran Preet Singh Lamba, who was the first Sikh American soldier to complete basic training while wearing a turban and beard. Sikh American soldiers have asked the Defense Department for a blanket policy regarding turbans and beards, instead of a case-by-case review.

Kalsi, the recipient of several military awards, told India-West that the Crowley letter to Hagel was a first step in the right direction. “I don’t just see this as an issue for the Sikh community. It is an issue for all Americans, which reaffirms our nation’s commitment to diversity and challenges us to think about what a patriotic American looks like,” he said.

Kalsi, who headed up a field hospital in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, one of the country’s most bloodied regions, said he had no difficulty wearing his Army helmet over a patka. His beard was tied up and was professional and presentable, he said. Kalsi said he was also allowed to keep his kirpan, as long as it was under three and a half inches.

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