The idea that he would have to choose between his country and his religion is hard for 2nd Lt. Rattan. “I’m offering my life, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my religious beliefs,” he said.
Mr. Singh said it would be in the military’s best interest to let Sikhs serve since the group has a long tradition of military service - in India, where most of its adherents are, and in the countries where Sikhs have made their homes, such as Canada and Britain.
“As part of our religious heritage, we’re taught that we have an obligation to actively serve and protect the communities in which we live,” he said.
In Canada, regulations for the armed forces allow Sikhs to keep their turbans and beards, and even determine what colors the different military branches can wear. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police allows turbans as well.
The British Army allows Sikhs to generally keep their articles of religion. For Sikhs who serve as civilian police officers, the British Police Sikh Association is pushing for development of bulletproof turbans. That would allow Sikhs to be part of firearms units because safety helmets don’t fit over them.
Sikhs have a long history with the U.S. military, serving in World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and in the Persian Gulf.
One of them is Army Col. Gopal Khalsa, who is retiring in November after more than three decades in uniform, all of those with a turban and beard.
His distinctive appearance has required some conversation and explanation at times, but it’s never been a problem for him, or gotten in the way of carrying out his duties or wearing his military equipment.
“Of course there’s a lot of looks, but once people get to know you, and you’re doing the job, that falls by the wayside,” Col. Khalsa said.
He thought a rule change would be a good idea, saying the presence of Sikh troops would be an asset in places where the United States is carrying out military operations, such as Afghanistan.
“The Army would be gaining successful, useful soldiers,” he said.
Capt. Kalsi hopes he can be one of those troops and serve his country as generations of his family have done.
“That’s what we connect with, that’s part of our heritage,” he said. “It links us to our past and our present and hopefully the future.”