American Sikh soldiers need beard exemptions, US special forces do not

The A-Team has beards?
By Anju Kaur | February 21, 2014
Left: US Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Right: A US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) soldier, in Afghanistan.

Left: US Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Right: A US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) soldier, in Afghanistan.

Reporting from Washington - The U. S. military allows its special forces to grow full beards while serving under the most extreme battle conditions, but requires Sikh soldiers to apply for religious accommodations for their beards, even with revisions made last month to its exemptions policy for religious practices.

“It’s true to life,” said Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh who first received an accommodation in 2009 to join the Army, and earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan. 

“A lot of the folks that were out there, that even I deployed with, actually had beards,” he said. “And it really begs the question: Why do we have this fixation with the clean-shaven look? I don’t know the answer to that.”  

The military amended its religious practices policy on Jan. 22. The only notable changes for Sikhs are that the military now recognizes hair as a religious “grooming and appearance” practice, which qualifies for a religious accommodation. And accommodations now have to be approved by the secretaries of the respective branches of the military, said Nate Christensen, spokesman for the defense department.

Sikh soldiers will continue to require exceptions for their kesh (hair) and dastaars (turbans) for all military service, for every assignment. 

The military’s greatest concern regarding kesh has always been that it may affect a soldier’s ability to tightly fit a gas mask. But that does not seem to be a concern for its special forces. These elite soldiers do not have to jump through any accommodation hoops. They grow their beards to a variety of lengths.

The military did not return numerous requests from SikhNN for comment. But Amandeep Singh Sidhu, one of about 10 attorneys working pro bono on reversing the military’s ban, told SikhNN he was aware of the inconsistencies in the military’s rationale for and implementation of its own policy. 

“The protocol has exceptions for special forces, and for medical conditions,” said Amandeep Singh, a partner at the McDermott Will and Emery law firm, in Washington. “We have known beards do not hinder a Sikh soldier’s ability to comply with safety requirements…

“It appears on its face to be an unreasonable and undefined policy.”

The U. S. Army Special Forces, known as Green Berets, and the Navy’s special operations forces, known as SEALs, have been on active duty in Afghanistan since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. 

These special forces soldiers bucked the beard ban with or without permission from senior commanders, U. S. News reported, in November 2008. 

And they did not seem to need an exception every time they changed assignments, like Sikh soldiers still do.

According to a Foreign Policy magazine report, in November 2009, the wearing of beards by these special forces soldiers dates back to the invasion in 2001, when small teams of troops worked with Northern Alliance forces to overthrow the Taliban. 

“The Western men grew beards in part to blend in on arduous and isolated missions in rural parts of Afghanistan, where long beards are still typically the norm.”

Then, in August 2010, after nearly a decade of growing long beards, they were ordered by their commanders to shave off. 

 “Top officials reportedly didn't think the photographs that appeared in the press of Special Forces soldiers helping protect (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai reflected well on the troops,” ABC News reported.

They wanted more “professional looking” soldiers in the field, according to the New York Daily News. Only those soldiers living closer to the villages were allowed to keep beards. 

“The thing you notice first about Special Forces in the field is their awesome, mountain-man-style beards, the most obvious facet of what they call their “relaxed grooming standards,”” Wired magazine reported, in March 2012. “In the eyes of many Afghans, only manly men can be leaders. And all manly men have beards. Thus leadership starts with facial fair.”

In addition to the health and safety concerns for gas masks, the new policy also cites military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline as reasons for justifying restrictions. But none of these issues were reported to be problematic for the bearded and brainy Rambo types.

“Unfortunately, the rationale to keep the door closed for Sikhs is not entirely clear,” said Amandeep Singh, whose firm collaborates with the New York-based Sikh Coalition in lobbying the military.

“If the military in the U. S. were serious about accommodating the Sikh turban and eliminating bans, it should develop military-standard-issue turbans and determine how they should be worn - what symbols they should have, when they should not be worn, what type should be worn under a helmet, under a gas mask - all regulations should be specifically laid out,” said Amardeep Singh, program director for the Sikh Coalition. “There are turban rules and regulations for India, Canada, Great Britain, but that is not the case here at all.”

Sikhs have served in the U. S. armed forces since World War I, until a strict ban was imposed in 1984. Then, in 2009, with a 15,000-signature petition campaign and support from 50 members of Congress, the Army decided to allow two Sikhs into its ranks: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan. Cpl. Simranpreet Singh Lamba joined in 2010. 

“So, what we’re saying is we’ve got three individuals that have shown proof of concept, shown without a shadow of a doubt that we can wear a helmet, we can do anything any other regular soldier is asked to do,” Kamaljeet Singh said. “We can wear a gas mask and still get a seal with our beards. 

“So why put us through that additional pain of going through an accommodation each and every time? Why must we be having a conversation about having an accommodation when other countries in the world simply allow Sikhs to walk into a recruiter’s office and join?

“Right now, we can’t even get into the recruiter’s office.”

Although the U. S. military is scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the whiskered special forces have already been sighted in another troubled part of the world: the Horn of Africa. Their mission is to counter violent extremism in the wake of the mall attack in Nairobi last year, where several Sikhs also were killed. 

“Housed in a compound within a compound are hundreds of highly secretive special forces operatives from JSOC – U. S. Joint Special Operations Command,” reported the BBC, about two weeks ago. 

“Huge men with beards and steely expressions, they keep to themselves, often deploying at night.” 

On Jan. 29, following the policy change, the Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing on ‘Religious Accommodations in the Armed Services.’ While most of the committee members debated the religious freedoms of chaplains in the military, one raised a question about the religious rights of Sikhs. 

“Can you please explain why there remains a presumptive ban?” asked Congressman Joe Heck of Nevada. 

“What the changes do, it tries to balance the need or provides the service to balance the needs of the service member against mission accomplishment,” said Virginia Penrod, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy. “What we’ve done is, decisions relating to any waiver of a regulation or policy that pertain to uniform wear religious articles of clothing, is now elevated to the service secretary.”

“If it is now elevated to the three-star level, you would think that would carry through in the person’s lifetime of service as opposed to every time they change assignments,” Heck said.

But that is not the case. Each of the service secretaries will have to reassess the new position to see how it impacts unit cohesion, health and safety, Penrod said. 

Heck served with retired Col. Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon when he was commander of the 349th Combat Support Hospital, in 2007.

“(He was) one of the trailblazers, and seemed to be able to overcome every obstacle that the military tried to put in his way from effective service,” Heck said. “I’m curious why the DODI (Department of Defense Instruction) still maintains those bans?”

About 45 Sikhs attended the hearing, although only 10 were seated in the main room. After the hearing, Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi was surrounded by reporters for an impromptu news conference. 

“Navy Seals and special operators can have these full blown beards, why can’t Sikhs?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t know,” the major replied. 

_________________________ From Sikh News Network archives.