Politics, Historic

U.S. Army may accept Sikh combat soldier

By Anju Kaur | March 30, 2016
Sikh soldiers, then and now, wearing gas masks and full body masks.

Sikh soldiers, then and now, wearing gas masks and full-body protective suits.

Update: Accommodation was granted on March 31.

Reporting from Washington – The U.S. Army may soon grant Capt. Simratpal Singh a religious accommodation to serve as a combat soldier, but it may not single him out and subject him to specialized testing involving his articles of faith - unshorn hair and beard, and turban – and use those results to make its final decision, expected tomorrow. 

On Feb. 28, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell declared the Army’s proposed testing “non-standard” and “discriminatory,” and barred it from enforcing personalized combat-helmet and gas-mask fit tests. 
 
“No other soldiers in the Army have been treated in this manner or subjected to similar tests as a condition for remaining in the Army,” she said in her decision. 
 
“We fully support efforts to study and gather data for Sikh soldiers or other soldiers, but you can’t do it to our client as the single participant,” said Amandeep Singh, a partner at the Washington-based McDermott, Will and Emery law firm, which is representing Simratpal Singh. 
 
“They are looking for an excuse.”
 
Simratpal Singh has a temporary accommodation to stay in the Army with his newly grown Kaes (unshorn hair) and dastaar (turban) until March 31, when the Army is expected to decide on whether or not to make his accommodation permanent. 
 
Whatever the decision, Simratpal Singh has told his attorney that he will never again give up on Sikhism.
 
But the Army may give up on Simratpal Singh. 
 
It has not granted accommodations for combat duty since 1981, when it eliminated its blanket exemption for Sikh soldiers that were in the Army uniform appearance and grooming rules since 1958, according to “Religion and the Constitution,” by Kent Greenawalt.
 
In the late 1970's, the Army received requests from “other groups” for similar exemptions and concluded that “allowing exemptions for numerous groups would adversely affect the Army's discipline, morale, esprit de corps, and public image,” a U.S. Court of Appeals said in Guru Sant Khalsa v. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, in 1986. 
 
“Other groups” included Yogi Bhajan’s spiritual commune, the Happy Healthy Holy Organization (3HO). Guru Sant Khalsa, now known as Gursant Singh, after leaving the organization, told SFP he was an expert marksman and had wanted to join the Army. He was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union but lost the case.
 
“While people have a constitutional right to follow their religious practices, the military has no obligation to admit people who will not comply with military regulations,” the appeals court said in its 1986 decision.
 
Courts had already begun upholding military appearance as a valid enough compelling interest to rule against any First Amendment constitutional challenge.
 
The first ruling against constitutional challenges came in a lawsuit brought by another Yogi Bhajan convert, Seaman Ronald Sherwood. In 1977, the U.S. Navy court-martialed and dishonorably discharged Sherwood for refusing to remove his turban and wear a helmet. In 1980, a U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the Navy. 
 
The following year, the Army eliminated all exemptions for Sikhs. 
 
Fifteen Sikhs were already serving in the Army at the time. Staff Sgt. Kirnbir Singh Grewal, who served from 1977 to 1984, also taught soldiers how to survive nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks using protective gear, according to the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group also representing Simratpal Singh. Some others were on combat duty, even as Special Forces soldiers.
 
Although the rule change did not apply to the 15, their assignments were restricted to serve within the continental United States “due to health and safety considerations,” the Army regulation stated. 
 
Sgt. Kirnbir Singh Grewal served in the U.S. Army from 1977 to 1984. His responsibilities included teaching other soldiers to use protective gear to survive nuclear and biological warfare. (L) Patrolling ammunition dump in Germany, 1981. (C) Wearing gas mask, hood, and full body suit for physical challenge test as part of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Germany, 1980. (R) Group pose after being selected for advanced nuclear, biological, and chemical training in Maryland, in 1977.
 
''The Army's review found the wearing of beards, unshorn hair, turbans and religious bracelets contrary to Army operational and safety requirements,” the New York Times reported on, Aug. 21, 1981.
 
Its conclusion was contrary to the exemplary service records of the 15 Sikh soldiers back then, and has been proven contrary by the three Sikh soldiers on active duty today.
 
In 2009, Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi became the first Sikh soldier to be granted an accommodation. Then, Maj. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, also in 2009, and Cpl. Simranpreet Singh Lamba, in 2010. All are now decorated Army officers that have been deployed abroad in dangerous zones with helmets and gas masks. 
“Why do Sikhs have to face tests when we have shown that turbans and beards are not an issue?” Kamaljeet Singh said.
 
He and the others are medical, dental and linguistics officers, not combat soldiers.
 
And even as medical personnel, their accommodations were not so easy to get. For Kamaljeet Singh, it took 18 months with the help of a Sikh advocacy group and a major law firm to go through his chain of command and lobby members of Congress and the White House to put pressure on the Army to let him in, he told SFP. 
 
Although the process was slightly easier for the next two Sikh soldiers, they still required substantial legal help. And so did Iknoor Singh, the most recent recipient of an accommodation, in June 2015, to join the Army’s college-based ROTC program. He also was backed by the ACLU. 
 
“As stated, each case will be different and will be considered based on its unique facts; the nature of the requested religious accommodation; the effect of approval or denial on the service member's exercise of religion; and the effect of approval or denial on mission accomplishment, including unit cohesion,” the Army said in an emailed statement to SFP. “The Department respects, and supports by its policy, the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to observe no religion at all.”  
 
And if Iknoor Singh decides to volunteer for active duty, he will have to apply for another accommodation. Accommodations are not permanent. The current Sikh soldiers also have to apply for a new accommodation every time they change their tour of duty. It is an endless cycle of tour and accommodation, which can potentially last their entire Army career.
 
“But even if the accommodation process works, it still pushes good qualified Sikh Americans away,” Kamaljeet Sing said. The Army’s presumptive ban has a chilling effect on an entire community of soldiers. 
 
Kamaljeet Singh also told NPR he knows about 100 young Sikhs who wanted to serve, but when they show up at the recruiter's office, they are told their turbans and beards are not a part of the uniform guidelines, and they must be removed.
 
(L) Cpl. Simranpreet Singh Lamba, a linguistics expert, participates in training exercises, 2010. He was the first Sikh enlisted soldier to be accommodated in since 1981. (C) Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an emergency medicine doctor, in Afghanistan, 2011. Recipient of  Bronze Star Medal for resuscitating two fellow soldiers. (R) Maj. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist, in Afghanistan, 2011. Recipient of the Army Commendation Medal and a NATO Medal.
 
Under similar circumstances, Simratpal Singh felt pressured to do just that when he joined the elite Military Academy at West Point, he said in his affidavit, in Simratpal Singh v. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, on Feb. 29. 
 
After graduating high school in Washington state, he wanted to pursue his life-long dream of becoming a soldier. He had to choose between his faith and West Point. He chose West Point.
 
“He constantly regretted not having pursued his religious rights more aggressively,” the lawsuit says. “…He always knew he was violating his conscience and lying about who he really was.”
 
Simratpal Singh graduated from West Point in 2010, and then from Ranger School. He went on to join the Army and won the Bronze Star Medal for “exceptional and meritorious service,” as patrol leader fighting on the front lines during Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar Province, from April 2012 to January 2013. More awards followed.
 
Then, in April 2015, Simratpal Singh saw an opportunity to go back to his Sikh roots. He met the other Sikh soldiers at a Pentagon event commemorating Vaisakhi, which marks the birth of Guru Nanak and the birth of the Khalsa, the Sikh identity as saint-soldiers, established by Guru Gobind Singh. 
 
Simratpal Singh grew his Kaes and tied a dastaar, and told his immediate commander he would be returning for duty in November as a Sikh. She supported his decision. He applied for an accommodation in October, but the Army delayed its decision to March 31. 
 
Then, on Feb. 24, Simratpal Singh was suddenly ordered to undergo rigorous safety testing of his combat helmet and gas mask. 
 
“After months of suggesting his accommodation would likely be made permanent, as had routinely happened for the other Sikh soldiers in the past, (the Army) abruptly informed Captain Singh that, because of his Sikh religion, he must immediately undergo extraordinary, targeted, repetitive testing ostensibly to ensure he can properly wear a combat helmet and safety mask,” at a cost of nearly $33,000, the lawsuit says. 
 
All soldiers are routinely tested for helmet and gas mask fit. Ironically, Simratpal Singh passed those tests just days before he was to undergo the personalized tests. While the Army was not aware of these results before the court hearing, its representatives were not impressed when they learned of his accomplishment, Amandeep Singh told SFP. They still insisted on the additional tests. 
 
“At first blush, the challenged order appears to reflect a reasonably thorough and even benevolent decision by the Army to fulfill its duty of protecting the health and safety of this particular Sikh officer,” Judge Howell said.  “Yet, that is far from the complete picture. 
 
“Thousands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks.” 
 
In the 2014 Iknoor Singh v. U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh litigation, the Army did not “claim or show that even one of the more than 100,000 soldiers who have been permitted to grow a beard since 2007—including many who have served in deployed environments—have been ordered to shave it for any reason.” 
 
The Army also admitted it “does not always enforce grooming policies pertaining to beards” even “when operational necessity requires.” This is evident in the relaxed treatment of Special Forces soldiers. 
 
According to military.com, the Special Forces, often referred to as the legendary Green Berets, make up an elite unconventional, combat arms organization. These soldiers are highly trained seasoned professionals deployed for special operations. 
 
The Special Forces soldiers at Kamaljeet Singh’s Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan grew out their hair and beards but were not subject to non-standard protective mask testing, he stated in Simratpal Singh’s lawsuit.
 
U.S. Army Special Forces: (L) An SF soldier in Afghanistan. (C) Sgt. Sevak Singh Kroesen, enlisted 1976, attached to Signal Company, 11th SF Group, became an SF communications sergeant, pictured 1987 in full combat uniform during SF training, honorably discharged in 1991. (R) Col. Gopal Singh Khalsa, enlisted 1976, served in the SF for ten years on parachute status and as a battalion commander of an 800-person intelligence group, receiving Meterious Service Medal in 2007, still serving in the Army.
 
In Simratpal Singh’s case, the Army is trying to accomplish a study. 
 
“If the concern is Sikh soldiers seeking accommodations, and they test and evaluate as in the memo, and tether the outcome of the religious accommodation to the results of test, then it is a violation of constitutional protection under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Amandeep Singh said. 
 
The 1993 act was passed by Congress to prevent the government and the military from substantially burdening a particular religious practice. The military would have to demonstrate the burden serves a compelling interest and prove it is the least restrictive means of serving that interest. 
 
According to a Feb. 23 Army memo, Debra Wada, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, ordered Simratpal Singh to be fitted with a combat helmet by a “technical expert” who would also examine and analyze how his Kaes and patka (under-turban) could be arranged underneath for a close fit. 
 
The “technical expert” would also fit him with up to four gas masks and test each one up to five times until a desired seal were achieved. But Simratpal Singh would only be allowed to use rubber bands to manage his beard. If none of the masks fit, he would be allowed to use a gel product on his beard, such as Vaseline, and be retested. The burden adds up to 20 potential tests.
 
Judge Howell also took note of the insulting nature of the Army’s proposed handling of Simratpal Singh, a decorated soldier, for these specialized tests. 
 
After the helmet tests at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia, Wada’s commanding officer wanted Simratpal Singh to be escorted to Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, for the gas mask tests. 
 
This was “a circumstance normally associated with soldiers they mistrust,” the judge said. 
 
“Our concern is not the possibility that (Simratpal Singh) would pass these tests, but the far greater possibility he would fail tests that are completely irrelevant,” he added. “Failure at any level could be used to deny an accommodation.”
 
The implications could be catastrophic - complete banishment of all Sikhs from the U.S. Army.
 
“There are absolutely allies in the Pentagon that would like to see the doors open to Sikh soldiers, and forces working against them,” Amandeep Singh said.
 
In March 2014, 105 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asking him to change the military uniform and grooming policy to allow Sikhs to freely serve their country.
 
“We respectfully request that the United States Armed Forces modernize their appearance regulations so that patriotic Sikh Americans can serve the country they love while abiding by their articles of faith,” the letter says.
 
And in November 2015, 27 retired U.S. Generals from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter asking him to change the military’s uniform and grooming policy. 
 
“These retired generals simply request that observant Sikh Americans “be given an equal opportunity to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces without violating their religious obligations,”” the letter says.
 
 “We are not asking for a blank check,” Kamaljeet Singh said. “Let us come in and go through boot camp. If we can’t do our job, then we wash out just like everyone else, like Christians, Jews or Hindus. 
 
“But why are Sikhs singled out this way? Just because of beard and turban?”