For the past 30 years, the Army has barred soldiers from wearing beards, or articles of clothing like turbans, for religious reasons. The service contends they hamper the proper use of gas masks and run counter to the military’s desire that soldiers share a uniform appearance.
But on Wednesday, Major Kamal Kalsi, a doctor, a 13-year Army veteran—and a Sikh—explained to Congress how his religion’s accoutrements and the Army can get along.
When the Army first reached out to him during medical school, Kalsi, one the hundreds of thousands of American Sikhs, expressed interest. But he told the recruiter: “This is how I come—turban and beard.” Kalsi says the recruiter assured him that his faith would not interfere with a military career.
By tradition, Sikhs keep their hair unshorn. According to the Sikh Coalition, a group that represents Sikhs in the United States, the tradition dates to Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, who gave the Sikhs five articles of faith, including uncut hair.
His career went smoothly until 2009, when Kalsi became a full-time, active-duty soldier. His superiors told him his beard and turban had to go. But with help from the Sikh Coalition, a group created after the 9/11 attacks to combat hate crimes against Sikhs (who may resemble Muslims to the untrained), Kalsi and a fellow Sikh soldier won the right to keep their beards and turbans.
Since then, Kalsi and his fellow Sikh have been “gassed” several times. They succeeded in satisfactorily fitting their masks tightly over their bearded faces to the “amazement” of Army personnel conducting the tests, Kalsi says.
True, the gas-mask triumphs are only a small victory in what is now a 30-year effort. But there are rumbles inside the Pentagon that the Army may soon ease such restrictions. For Kalsi, that day can’t come soon enough. “Right now Sikhs can’t get into recruiters’ offices,” he says. “We need to catch up with the rest of the modern world.”