The military history of Sikh Americans dates back as far as World War I, and continues to the present day. However, since the 1980s, observant Sikhs have faced great difficulty in serving due to a discontinuation of exemptions to uniform standards which previously allowed Sikhs to maintain their religiously-mandated beards and turbans while in uniform.
World War I
One of the earlier Sikh soldiers in the American military was one Bhagat Singh Thind, who though not a citizen joined the United States Army and served in World War I. Thind requested citizenship at the end of the war, but was refused. Sikh participation in World War I on the American side was limited due to their small population in the country, but 138,000 Sikhs served in other Allied forces during the war.
Restrictions due to uniform regulations
Prior to the 1980s the United States Armed Forces allowed the wearing of beards while in uniform. However, due to a change in regulations the U.S. armed forces stopped allowing for the wearing of beards in uniform, except for those who commenced their service in the military before 1986. As the beard is a requirement according to the Rehat Maryada, the current regulation, has created a regulatory barrier that has kept Sikhs from serving in the United States Armed Forces in large numbers since. Prior to this change in regulation, two Sikhs who served in the US military were Col. Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon and Col. G. B. Singh.
In April 2009, Sikh Army Captain Kamaljeet S. Kalsi, a doctor, with the help of the Sikh Coalition, filed an objection to the Inspector General and the Department of Defense to be allowed to continue to serve with his religious apparel intact. Joined in the filing of the object was one Army Reserve Second Lieutenant Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist. CPT Kalsi had joined the Army via its Health Professions Scholarship Program and had been reassured by the recruiter that wearing the uniform while retaining his religious required appearance and apparel would not be a problem. CPT Kalsi had even served in uniform without any problems at West Point and Travis Air Force Base. Yet, a problem arose in early 2009 when the Pentagon told CPT Kalsi and 2LT Rattan that they would be called to Active Duty and would need to shave their beard and stop wearing their turbans.
The Sikh Coalition argued that not allowing the servicemembers to continue to maintain their appearance according to their religion violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The Army argued that continued wear of the turban and beard violated current regulation, that would hinder the servicemembers about to meet health, safety, and mission requirements including the wear of gas mask. In late October 2009, CPT Kalsi was allowed an exemption to the policy, and would be able to serve while adhering to his religious beliefs. The Army continues to maintain that these were specific determinations due to the individual case and that present regulations will not change, however the Sikh Coalition holds out that this will be the beginning of a policy shift that will allow other Sikhs to serve their country in uniform. The case of 2LT Rattan is on hold, pending his completion of the dental boards exam.
Rattan, now Captain, graduated from basic officer training at Fort Sam Houston on March 22, 2010. He and Dr. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi are the first Sikh officers to have received exemption from the Army in more than 25 years. They were followed by Specialist Lamba who graduated from Fort Jackson in November 2010. Dr. Kalsi has subsequently deployed to Afghanistan with a Combat Support Hospital and, now a Major, is the director of Emergency Medical Services at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center.
- United States Air Force Chaplain Corps
- United States Army Chaplain Corps
- United States Navy Chaplain Corps
- Dawinder S. Sidhu, Neha Singh Gohil. Civil rights in wartime: the post-9/11 Sikh experience. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009. ISBN 0-7546-7553-X, 9780754675532. Pg 137
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- Kevin Baron (15 April 2009). "Sikhs want U.S. Army to waive dress and appearance regulations". http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=62026#. Retrieved 25 October 2009.
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- Chidanand Rajghatta (8 April 2009). "Sikhs demand right to wear turban in US Army". http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/world/indians-abroad/Sikhs-demand-right-to-wear-turban-in-US-Army/articleshow/4372634.cms. Retrieved 25 October 2009.
- The Associated Press (23 October 2009). "Sikh group: Doc gets OK to serve with turban". http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/10/ap_army_sikh_hair_102309w/#.
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- The Associated Press (23 October 2009). "Army Allows a Sikh Doctor to Serve Wearing a Turban". http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/24/nyregion/24sikh.html. Retrieved 25 October 2009.
- Michelle Roberts. "1st Sikh in Decades Graduates Army Officer School, Page 1". ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=10172836. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- Wilkinson, Jeff (11 November 2010). "Sikh soldier stands out at Fort Jackson". Archived from the original on 11 November 2010. http://web.archive.org/web/20101111080259/http://www.thestate.com/2010/11/11/1555712/sikh-soldier-stands-out-at-fort.html. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
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