A band of retired military leaders and religious advocates are rallying this Veterans Day to call for devout Sikhs be allowed to serve in the military while keeping their beards, unshorn hair, and turbans, which are worn for religious reasons.
Twenty-seven retired commanders from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have signed a letter addressed to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter encouraging him to remove barriers that effectively prevent observant Sikhs to serve without being forced to violate their religious obligations or undergo a long exemption process.
"On Veterans Day, we honor Americans who have served our country, but it's also a time to understand there are some Americans who still struggle for the basic right to serve," retired US Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling said in a statement.
The signatories of the letter called the military out for its "presumptive ban" on Sikhs. Imposed in 1981, the ban restricts service members from wearing articles of faith, citing "the importance of uniformity and adhering to standards," although occasional exceptions have been made. But in the last six years, the military has made temporary accommodations for only three Sikhs.
While Sikhs are relatively rare in Western militaries, Canada's new defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, is a decorated Sikh soldier who was applauded for his intelligence-gathering efforts in Afghanistan. He also patented a gas mask that was designed to fit over his beard and turban.
The three American Sikh soldiers who have been granted temporary waivers to allow them to maintain their religious articles — Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Major Tejdeep Singh Rattan, and Corporal Simran Preet Singh Lamba — have managed any complications that their beards or turbans might cause during combat.
The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, has been working with lawyers since the men secured their waivers to change the military's policy so that future Sikh service members do not have to go through the long process obtaining accommodations.
While none of the men have used Sajjan's mask, all three have safely secured US military gas masks to their faces, the Sikh Coalition said. Kalsi, a 39-year-old recipient of the Bronze Star medal for his service in Afghanistan, has also reportedly worn a camouflage turban and pinned his beard tightly under his chin during combat. He testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights in 2013 for the right of Sikhs to serve in the military.
"Let me make clear that I would never advocate for anything that would put my fellow soldiers in harm's way," he said. "If Sikhs could not wear helmets or gas masks when required, I would never call on my military to accommodate Sikh American soldiers. But that is simply not the case. Sikh soldiers have served on Special Forces teams. They have jumped out of airplanes as paratroopers, and have deployed in far-forward combat operations. We can serve our country and be Sikh at the same time."
This sentiment was echoed by the support of the retired US military commanders.
"Sikh Americans have a proud history of honorable and selfless military service," said retired US Air Force Brigadier General Jeffrey Kendall, a signatory of the letter to Carter. "A person's faith should not create artificial barriers to recruitment and retention, especially when simple accommodations are both easily available and proven in combat."