By Nimisha Thakore
The United States Army on Monday granted its third exception within the past year to a Sikh soldier to continue serving in the armed forces wearing a turban and full beard.
Simran Preet Singh Lamba filed an appeal for religious accommodation in March. Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick issued Lamba a letter Monday granting him the freedom to “wear a turban and keep unshorn hair … in keeping with the tenets of your faith. Your beard, uncut hair, and turban will be neat and well maintained at all times.”
Lamba’s exception comes not long after similar rulings for a pair of Sikh soldiers for the first time in 23 years. The Army granted exceptions to regulation dress codes for Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor, in October 2009, and Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist, in December. However, the accommodation came only after various Sikh organizations relentlessly pursued the issue and sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, signed by six U.S. senators and 43 members of the House of Representatives.
In following with Sikh practice, many Sikh men and women do not cut their hair. According to the Reht Maryada, the official Sikh Code of Conduct, a Sikh “should, in no way, harbour [sic] any antipathy to the hair of the head with which his child is born. He should not temper with the hair with which the child is born.”
Sikh Americans have served in the armed forces since WWI, according to the Army. But in 1984, then-Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. John Wickham, Jr., revoked exceptions for soldiers wearing “conspicuous” items of faith – including turbans and beards for health and safety reasons.
The new policy barred many religious Sikhs, historically characterized as fearless warriors, from enlisting — until now.
No permanent change has been made to standards on the books, but the Army’s recent exceptions could help mitigate wrongful categorizing of Sikhs as Muslims and stereotyping as extremists or terrorists.