For close to a decade, Simratpal Singh felt torn between the ideals of his faith and those of the U.S. Army.
The Army has granted Capt. Singh, a Sikh, permission to serve while wearing a turban over his long hair and a beard with his uniform.
He is the first active duty soldier to seek the accommodation and receive it while serving in the Army, according to The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh American advocacy organization in the United States.
“I had a childhood fascination with the Army,” Singh told CNN. “The Sikh concept of standing up for the weak and defending the defenseless is very much at the core of the Sikh psyche, and those are same ideals that the U.S. Army upholds.”
Singh initially asked the Army for an exemption in October and was granted a temporary exemption in December. As it was about to expire in February, he was asked to report for additional gas and helmet testing, beyond the basic testing typically required.
Singh, 28, then filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense. He was granted the exemption last week.
Turbans, unshorn hair and beards have a deep spiritual meaning for Sikh men. They represent a commitment to service and justice. Sikh men have worn turbans since 1699, when the last living guru bestowed on the clothing item a unique Sikh identity.
Assistant Secretary of the Army Debra Wada explained the religious accommodation in a memorandum. The exception is subject to some limitations.
“While assigned or performing non-hazardous duties, you may wear a beard, turban, and uncut hair in a neat and conservative manner that presents a professional and well-groomed appearance,” she wrote.
“Because of the Army’s interest in mission accomplishment, which requires military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health, and safety on both the individual and unit levels, I have requested that your command provide quarterly assessments of the effect of your accommodation, if any, on unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety, and individual and unit readiness.”
Combat veteran served in Afghanistan
Singh, a decorated combat veteran, has been in the Army for 10 years, first as a cadet and now as a commissioned officer. In 2012, he was deployed to Afghanistan. Throughout his service, Singh adhered to the Army’s grooming and appearance regulations.
When he started at West Point at 18 and learned he would have to shave, he says he was shocked: “My life was shattered in only 10 minutes.”
Singh came to the United States from Punjab, India, when he was 9. His family moved from California to Seattle. He attended West Point from 2006 to 2010 and graduated with honors. Singh received a Bronze Star for his tour in Afghanistan.
He is now serving and living in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he is an assistant operations officer on the 249th Engineer Battalion.
Singh hopes his actions will be an inspiration to others.
“As a kid, you are told, you can be anything in the U.S., and that rings through even more now,” he said.