Amid lines of soldiers, one after the other in standard-issue fatigues and combat boots, was one in a turban and full beard on Monday — the first Sikh in a generation allowed to complete US Army officer basic training without sacrificing the articles of his faith.
Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a 31-year-old dentist, graduated on Monday at Fort Sam Houston after the Army made an exemption to a uniform policy that has effectively prevented Sikhs from enlisting since 1984.
“I’m feeling very humbled. I’m a soldier,” he said, grinning after the ceremony as other members of the Sikh community milled about nearby. “This has been my dream.”
Rattan had to get a waiver from the Army to be allowed to serve without sacrificing the unshorn hair mandated by his faith. An immigrant from India who arrived in New York as a teenager, Rattan said it was important for him to serve a country that has given him so many opportunities.
The US Army eliminated an exemption that had previously allowed Sikhs to maintain their articles of faith while serving in 1984, but officials can issue individual waivers to the uniform policy after considering the effects on safety and discipline, Army spokesman George Wright said. Only a handful of such individual religious exemptions are ever granted.
Rattan and Dr Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who will attend basic training this summer after completing an emergency medicine fellowship, are the first Sikhs to receive exemptions in more than 25 years.
Rattan and Kalsi both offer healthcare skills that are in high demand in an Army stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
First Sergeant Jeffrey DeGarmo said he made sure the officers-in-training in his unit understood that Rattan wasn’t a foreign national and had received the Army’s permission to maintain his beard and turban. Once the other soldiers understood that, there were no issues, he said.
“It went pretty well,” DeGarmo said. “I think he did an outstanding job adjusting.”
During training, Rattan wore a helmet over the small turban, which he doesn’t remove, and was able to successfully create a seal with his gas mask despite the beard, resolving the Army’s safety concerns, said Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s legal director.
Singh said allowing Sikh adherents to serve in the Army is an important part of ensuring they are an integral part of US life. He said it could also help counter prejudice.
“If [the] government can say to someone: ‘You can’t serve, not for any reason that has to do with your abilities,’ that sends the wrong message,” he said. “We don’t want to be perpetual outsiders.”