The Washington Times - March 30, 2010, 05:28PM

Sikhs — who belong to one of the world’s newest religions that originated out of northwest India — have always been known as world-class warriors so it’s no surprise that American Sikhs have wanted to join the U.S. Armed Forces. But their insistence on keeping their turbans on despite an Army ban on them and on the unshorn hair worn by Sikh men since 1981 — has kept many from serving. 

But on March 22, according to a press release I got from the Sikh Coalition, Cpt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan graduated from basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; is the first turbaned Sikh officer to complete basic training in more than two decades.


I am inserting here a portion of the Coalition’s press release to better explain why this one religious group has had such a rough time of it. You may remember that Sikhs were banned from attending an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 here in Washington because of Sikhs’ insistence on wearing a ceremonial kirpan, which is like a dagger.

Here is what the Sikhs are now saying: 

“I am overjoyed to serve my country, work with my fellow soldiers, and to have completed basic training,” Cpt. Rattan said. “Most importantly, in preparation for my work as a soldier, I was able to successfully complete all aspects of my initial training. I had an overwhelmingly positive experience. I am very thankful to the base command, Army leadership, and my fellow soldiers. I look forward to continuing to serve my country.”

Cpt. Rattan was recruited to join the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program several years ago. He maintained his turban throughout his dental education. Nevertheless, after completing his education, he was told that he must remove his religiously-mandated turban and unshorn hair before he began active duty. 

Last April, he submitted a request to the Army asking that he be allowed to maintain his turban and beard while serving the Army. This past December, the Army granted his request for accommodation.

Contrary to the concerns of some, Captain Rattan was able to meet all the requirements of a solider during basic training. He wore a helmet over a small turban during field exercises. During gas mask exercises, he successfully created a seal. He also built strong bonds with the soldiers in his platoon.

“We are pleased to learn that Tejdeep’s experience demonstrates that Sikh service in the U.S. Army meets military necessity,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director, Sikh Coalition. “Turbaned Sikhs previously served the United States’ military with distinction in every major armed conflict over the past 100 years. While it is unfortunate that Sikhs were excluded from the military for the past two decades, I hope we will soon turn a page and restore Sikh service in the U.S. military. 

“Sikhs freely serve in the militaries of Great Britain, Canada and India, and as United Nations Peacekeepers.  Whether through Tejdeep’s experience here in Fort Sam Houston or through the experience of hundreds of thousands of Sikh soldiers in militaries throughout the world, we know Sikhs are capable soldiers. We look forward to the day when the U.S. Army again welcomes the service of all Sikhs.”

In 1981, the Army banned “conspicuous” religious articles of faith for its service members. This included a ban on Sikh turbans and unshorn hair in the Army. Though Captain Rattan was successful in his requests for accommodation, his accommodation applied only in his individual case. The general policy disallowing Sikhs from maintaining their articles of faith in the military still remains in effect. 

- Julia Duin, religion editor