Politics

US Sikh Soldier Asks for Military Policy Change

By Anju Kaur | June 10, 2013
They rushed him into our emergency-room tent. He was breathing, but badly bleeding from multiple shrapnel wounds. We worked on him for the next two hours. 
 
When he was being wheeled away to the recovery wards, he grabbed my hand. And with tears in his eyes, he said: “Thank you brother.” 
 
“That is one of many moments during my service in Afghanistan that I will never forget,” said Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, during his testimony in front of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
 
“I can tell you with 100 percent assurance that none of my fellow soldiers or patients could care less that I was wearing a turban or had a beard while I was treating their wounds,” he said.
 
Kamaljeet Kalsi was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan. But the decorated soldier still has to apply for a religious accommodation to allow him to serve with his unshorn hair and dastaar every time he is assigned to a new unit or base. 
 
On May 31, Kamaljeet Singh asked the commission to help end US military uniform policies that restrict Sikhs articles of faith.
 
“While I am grateful… for the opportunity to serve, it troubles me that my accommodation and that of other Sikh soldiers are simply individual accommodations,” he said. “The time has come and passed for our military to openly embrace those Sikhs who want to serve our country by removing the rules that presumptively exclude them.”
 
Kamaljeet Singh’s testimony was among several other testimonies on civil rights issues that were heard that day. The commissioners are expected to issue a report on the hearing, which will be used to advise the president and the Congress. 
 
“It may very well be that that will garner some attention either from the president or the vice president, certain members of Congress,” said Commissioner Roberta Achtenberg. “We will be talking with them and seeing if we can’t generate interest in the issue, perhaps get them to call a hearing on the issue.”
 
The commissioners also have the ability to publicize issues they believe should be given additional attention. 
 
“There is a good bit of sympathy among the commissioners on this issue, so I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to make an important recommendation to the president and to the Congress regarding the ability of Sikhs Americans to serve,” Achtenberg said.
 
In 2009, Kamaljeet Singh and Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan became the first Sikhs, in a generation, to be allowed to maintain their religiously mandated unshorn hair and dastaars while serving in the Army. And in 2010, Spc. Simran Preet Singh Lamba also received a similar exception.
 
In considering the accommodations, the Army examined the armed forces of other countries, including Great Britain, Canada, and India, which freely enlist Sikh soldiers. More than 83,000 Sikh soldiers died fighting alongside allied forces during the World Wars. 
 
The Army also examined the service of Sikh soldiers in American history. Sikhs have served in the US military with honor and distinction since the early 1900s, Kamaljeet Singh told the commissioners. Bhagat Singh Thind was the first Sikh soldier in the US Army to fight in World War I. American Sikh soldiers have also served in the Korean War and the first Persian Gulf War.
 
The Sikh Coalition spearheaded the legal campaign to change the policy that bans Sikhs military service. With the help of the New York-based advocacy group, the three Sikh soldiers were able to demonstrate that they could wear helmets and gas masks during combat situations, probably the military’s greatest concern. 
 
“We can serve our country and be Sikh at the same time,” Kamaljeet Singh said.
 
Sikh soldiers have served on Special Forces teams, he added. They have jumped out of airplanes as paratroopers, and have deployed in far-forward combat operations. 
 
More than 15,000 Americans petitioned the Army, and more than 50 members of Congress signed letters of support before his request was granted.
 
Kamaljeet Singh began Officer Basic Training in July 2010, and was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2011 as the chief officer of a tented emergency room in Helmand province. He also served as chief of disaster medicine. He personally treated more 750 combat casualties and local nationals who suffered from IED blasts, gunshot wounds, and other emergent conditions. And he resuscitated back to life two patients that were clinically dead on arrival.  
 
“All that mattered was whether I was an asset to our mission,” he said at the hearing. “Based on my Bronze Star Medal citation… I would humbly submit that I was, in fact, an asset to our mission.”
 
Tejdeep Singh also served in Afghanistan. He received the Army Commendation Medal and a NATO Medal for his service.
 
Kamaljeet Singh is now at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He is the medical director for the Department of Defense’s largest stateside emergency medical services (EMS) system. 
 
“Both Capt. Rattan and Spc. Lamba would agree with me that our Sikh articles of faith not only do not interfere with our duties, but are in fact an invaluable asset to our military because their accommodation projects our country’s values of freedom and pluralism to the world,” he said. 
 
“To my military, I would say that your prospective Sikh American soldiers are waiting to be embraced by you.”
 
Kamaljeet Singh comes from a military family, his father, Charan Singh Kalsi, told SikhNN after the hearing. His great grandfather was a soldier in the British Army, and his grandfather and father were soldiers in the Indian Air Force. 
 
His brother, Ranjeet Singh Kalsi, is in medical school. Both came to Washington to see him testify.
 
“My brother is an amazing role model, not just for me but for Sikhs everywhere,” he said.  “He is opening the flood gates for everybody to move forward, not just in the military but in other careers as well.”  
 
Kamaljeet Singh has a wife and two small kids in New Jersey. He visits them every time he is off duty.
 
 

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