Sikh Officer Begins Service in US Army
Updated with NPR story.
Capt Tejdeep Singh Rattan recently completed US Army officer basic training. He and Dr. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi are Sikhs who have been granted waivers to Army uniform standards allowing them to keep their beard, hair, and turbans, as required by their religious faith.
Two of the more interesting parts of the story are Rattan’s perspective on others’ perceptions, as well as the steps his trainers took to prevent misconceptions about who Rattan was. Rattan said:
he encountered no trouble from fellow Soldiers during training.
“The Army is all about what you have to offer. If you’re sitting back there, not doing anything, they’re definitely going to talk about you. But if you’re up there running with them, you have good scores, you run neck-and-neck with them, they love you,” he said. “I made a lot of friends.”
Rattan’s leadership went out of its way to make sure his peers knew Rattan had received Army approval for his uniform exemption:
1st Sgt. Jeffrey DeGarmo said he made sure the officers-in-training in his unit understood that Rattan wasn’t a foreign national and had received the Army’s permission to maintain his beard and turban. Once the other Soldiers understood that, there were no issues, he said.
[Updated:] As noted at NPR, Rattan explained part of his drive to seek the exemption and serve in the US military:
“It gave me the opportunity to be who I was: a saint-soldier,” he says. “I’m an American soldier now.”
(Though his statement is an admirable confession of his desire to serve, his decision to combine his faith and his profession would be controversial…if he were a Christian.)
Some have still questioned the decision to grant the exemptions. Notably, these two men received exemptions to the policy, not a rescinsion of it. ([Updated:] NPR had a somewhat misleading article title when it said “Sikhs Regain Right to Wear Turbans in US Army,” which, as a categorical statement, isn’t entirely true.) Sikhs (or persons of any other faith or persuasion) who desire to enter the US military but maintain an appearance outside of military standards must still individually obtain exemptions to do so. Otherwise, they and those in the service are bound by uniform regulations, which, in accordance with US law, do allow religious accoutrements when they are “neat and conservative” and do not interfere with the performance of duties. (See the results of Goldman v Weinberger at Religion and the Military.)
It is also worth highlighting that local leadership was aware of Rattan’s status and made a proactive effort to educate the others in his training class. The military is by no means perfect, but in this instance it appears some knowledgeable NCOs made some wise decisions. As a result, Rattan reported only positive experiences despite the differences in his faith and appearance.
For an organization exclusively foisting Christianity and attempting to take over the country–at least, according to a few conspiracy theorists–this would seem to be a counterproductive step. Perhaps this instead demonstrates the truth of the US military’s promotion of religious liberty, to the extent it can do so within the dictates of its mission.