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"I'm an American Soldier, I'm a Warrior ..."

by MICHELLE ROBERTS

 

 

The soldiers in standard-issue fatigues and combat boots stood side-by-side repeating their creed: "I am an American soldier. I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the Army values ..."

Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan was no different except that he wore a full beard and black turban, the first Sikh in a generation allowed to complete U.S. Army basic officer training without sacrificing the articles of his faith. He completed the nine-week training Monday after Army officials made an exemption to a policy that has effectively prevented Sikhs from enlisting since 1984.

"I'm feeling very humbled. I'm a soldier," said the 31-year-old dentist, smiling after the ceremony at Fort Sam Houston. "This has been my dream."

Tejdeep had to get a waiver from the Army 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 he hopes his military commitment will allow him to give back to his adopted home country and will help diminish prejudice Sikhs sometimes face in the U.S.

The Army in 1984 eliminated an exemption that had previously allowed Sikhs to maintain their articles of faith while serving, but officials can issue individual waivers to the uniform policy after considering the effects on safety and discipline, said Army spokesman George Wright. Only a handful of such individual religious exemptions are ever granted.

Tejdeep 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.

Tejdeep - who received a Master's degree in Engineering before pursuing a dental education,  and Kamaljeet,  both offer health care skills that are in high demand in an Army stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tejdeep said he encountered no trouble from fellow soldiers during training.

"The Army is all about what you have to offer. If you're sitting back there, not doing anything, they're definitely going to talk about you. But if you're up there running with them, you have good scores, you run neck-and-neck with them, they love you," he said. "I made a lot of friends."

1st Sgt. Jeffrey DeGarmo said he made sure the officers-in-training in his unit understood that Tejdeep 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, Tejdeep 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.

Tejdeep also worked with an Army tailor to create an insignia patch normally worn on soldiers' berets that could be affixed to his black turban, she said.

An estimated half-a-million Sikh-Americans live in the United States. The unshorn hair wrapped in a turban and beard are required to keep adherents in the natural state in which God made them, said Amardeep Singh, director of the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group that helped Tejdeep and Kamaljeet push for Army admittance.

The Sikh community has a long tradition of military service in India, from where most adherents originally emigrated, and in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada. Sikhs represent 2 percent of India's population but make up about 30 percent of that country's army officers, Singh said.

Before the Army's regulation change in 1984, Sikhs served in the U.S. military during every major armed conflict going back to World War I. Those who joined before the change were allowed to serve with their beards and turbans, but the policy effectively prevented new enlistment of Sikhs, Kaur said.

The coalition continues to push the Army to change the overall policy.

"If 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," Amardeep Singh said. "We don't want to be perpetual outsiders."

 

[Courtesy: Associated Press]

Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 6:02 AM.

Tejdeep Singh and Kamaljeet Singh: Thank you for standing up for all of our boys and girls with your dastaars. The Sikh Coalition: Thank you for your advocacy. This AP report made my day!

2: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, CT, U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 6:07 AM.

A sister's ardaas: "Patshaa, watch over my veer. May Your fragrance emit through him"

3: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 7:12 AM.

Now this is what I call making history. Kudos to all who have opened this door; grateful thanks to those who have made this possible.

4: Peejay (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), March 23, 2010, 11:44 AM.

Well done, Tejdeep and Kamaljeet. You are wonderful role-models for younger Sikhs all over the world. You make us proud. We wish you great success in your careers. May Satguru protect and guide you, always.

5: K. Kaur (India), March 23, 2010, 12:46 PM.

Congratulations to Tejdeep and the Sikh Coalition for making this possible! My only concern is that prior to 1984, Sikhs were allowed to serve in the U.S. army with full articles of faith and then after 1984 it was changed? Why? Did the events in India impact U.S. policy? It is disturbing to consider that the U.S. government believed India's PR about Sikhs being terrorists and they were willing to 'victimize' a whole community based on second-hand information from India government officials.

6: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 3:36 PM.

Congratulation to all three Tejdeep Singh, Kamaljeet Singh and the Sikh Coalition, for standing up for Sikhi. God bless all of you. This is really a big achievement for Sikhs. This is a new path for young Sikhs in U.S.A. who were denied the right to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.

7: Mai Harinder Kaur (Seattle, U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 4:18 PM.

K. Kaur, I think this had nothing to do with what happened to us in India. This change took place during the administration of Ronald Reagan, a staunch conservative Republican. When he was governor of California, he made the statement that all long-haired men ought to have their heads shaved, preferably at a U.S. Army induction center. He was, of course, referring to hippies, but I strongly suspect that his antipathy for men with long hair might well have been transferred to Sikhs. I have thought about this long and hard and come to this conclusion. But what idiocy to bar the best soldiers in the world from our military!

8: Darshan Singh Sehbi (U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 5:45 PM.

Well done, Captain. I am sure you will take good care of the "ship." The whole Sikh community is very proud of you.

9: Jasvir Kaur (U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 7:26 PM.

Tejdeep and Kamaljeet Singh, your strength and courage speak for themselves. More so your faith and determination pave the way for a brighter future. Kudos to the Sikh Coalition. Thank you for representing the Sikhs and for being positive role models.

10: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 24, 2010, 4:28 PM.

I suspect Waheguru must have a soft corner for daughters and puts them ahead in the queue and listens to their applications first. Inni, your prayer for your veer would always have Waheguru's shield to protect him. "Apne daas kao kanth la-e rakhai ji-o barak pit mata" [GGS:621] - "He hugs His slave close in His loving embrace/ like the mother and father hug their child."

11: Amarjit Duggal (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 24, 2010, 7:37 PM.

Congratulations! The first time I cried was when I saw Prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh ji walk into the Golden Temple and sat there listening to gurbani kirtan for 40 minutes. Today, I am crying again, having seen another dream fulfilled. Yes, a turbaned Sikh in the U.S. army! Not all of us wear turbans and not all are comfortable either, but whosoever loves to wear a turban, he should have been allowed, as long as he can perform his duties and obligations. Beliefs and traditions can only be changed by the very person who carries it. Outside forces trying to change it is against the very nature of humanity and the free human spirit.

12: Jodh Singh Arora (Jericho, New York, U.S.A.), March 25, 2010, 1:52 PM.

It is good to see the two young men in the U.S. army. It is also important to note that there are more than half a million Sikhs in The U.S. And there are many more Sikhs in the U.S. army. My son Navin Singh is captain and has been working for U.S.A. army for five years. He had his Anand Karaj at the gurdwara in Washington D.C. as he wanted his friends in the army to join him at his wedding. He has already spent one year in the Middle-East as a medical doctor. He is now a board-certified dermatologist and his wife is a board-certified pediatrician. Both are serving in the U.S. army on active duty as captains.

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