Monday, 105 lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, urging him to change a relatively obscure uniform requirement for the U.S. armed forces that some argue infringes on religious beliefs.
People who observe religions that require specific hair or dress traditions have to seek an accommodation from a superior to break the Defense Department's uniform requirements.
Dr. Kamal Kalsi was the first observant Sikh to apply for the accommodation since the rule took effect in the 1980s. As a devout Sikh, Kalsi doesn't cut his hair. He wraps his hair up in a turban and doesn't shave his beard. Keeping his hair long is an obligatory article of his Sikh faith.
Kalsi had joined the U.S. Army Reserves back in 2001, seven months before Sept. 11. He was in medical school, training to be an emergency room doctor. And like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, he wanted to serve his country.
But when he tried to volunteer for active duty in 2009, Kalsi ran into a problem: His turban and beard broke the Department of Defense uniform and grooming rules.
"A turban and beard interfere with uniformity, possibly may interfere with unit cohesion, and may pose a safety hazard," Kalsi explains, paraphrasing the Department of Defense's argument.
To serve, he applied for the religious accommodation.
"It was an amicable process between myself, my superiors and the Army," he tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath. "But it was a pretty monster task. It took nearly 15,000 petitioners on a letter to then-Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates. It took 50 congressional signatures. It took pressure from the White House, a major law firm, then a civil rights advocate group, to get one soldier in."
Since Kalsi was given his accommodation in 2010, two other Sikhs have moved to active duty: Capt. Tejdeep Rattan is a dentist, currently serving at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; and Sgt. Simranpreet Lamba, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, is the Army's only enlisted Sikh soldier. Their review periods were "incrementally easier" than Kalsi's, but still arduous, he says.
"But the fact remains that this laborious process remains a barrier to Sikhs serving. It creates a bit of a chilling effect on those that wish to serve," Kalsi says.
He says he's talked with around 100 young Sikhs who have wanted to serve but don't know how. When they show up at the recruiter's office, they're told their turbans and beards are not a part of the uniform guidelines, and that they must be removed.
"Many, many Sikhs have such a long history of military service," Kalsi says. "In Britain, in Canada and in India, if a Sikh wants to join, they simply walk up to the recruiter's office and sign up. In the United States today, that process is broken."
The accommodation isn't permanent, either. If Kalsi or either of the other two Sikh soldiers are deployed or ask to move, they will need to reapply.
The Department of Defense has made some moves to change the policy. On Jan. 30, they released new instructions that attempted to clarify the religious exemption issue. Kalsi says that it doesn't do much to fix the situation for Sikhs and observant members of other religions who run into similar obstacles because they still face somewhat of a Catch-22.
"The army will allow you in, pending your accommodation request. But you are expected to adhere to the current guidelines while your accommodation request is pending," Kalsi says. "So Sikhs would, in essence, be required to remove their turbans and shave their beards while the religious accommodation request for their turbans and beards is being considered, which is unacceptable to us."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Now to a story about a more serious policy change being considered in Washington.
This week, 105 legislators presented a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, urging him to change a relatively obscure uniform policy.
Dr. Kamal Kalsi is a major in the U.S. Army. He'd signed up for the Reserves back in 2001, seven months before 9/11. Dr. Kalsi is a Sikh. He wears a turban and has a full beard. Both are essential articles of his faith. But they posed a problem when he wanted to volunteer for active duty in 2009.
Dr. Kalsi's turban and beard break the uniform and grooming rules for the Department of Defense. It used to be the DOD allowed religious exemptions to the rule, but that changed in the 1980s, and the new rules were not friendly to Sikhs.
DR. KAMAL KALSI: A turban and beard interfere with uniformity, possibly may interfere with unit cohesion and may pose a safety hazard.
RATH: Since then, observant Sikhs who wish to serve in active duty must apply for special accommodation. Kamal Kalsi was the first Sikh to do so.
KALSI: It was an amicable process between myself and my superiors and the Army, but it was a pretty monster task. It took nearly 15,000 petitioners on a letter to then-Defense Secretary Gates. It took 50 congressional signatures. It took pressure from the White House, you know, a major law firm, then a civil rights advocate group, to get one soldier in.
RATH: Since you got your accommodation in 2010, there have been two other Sikhs who have been accommodated and are serving. Is their application process like yours, or has it changed at all?
KALSI: Well, it improved incrementally with each accommodation. So Captain Rattan, whom is a dentist, currently serving on active duty at Fort Bragg, and then similarly, Corporal Lamba, who is an enlisted soldier, his process, although having still took several months, was a little bit quicker. But the fact remains that this laborious process remains a barrier to Sikhs serving. It creates a bit of a chilling effect on those that wish to serve.
More recently, DOD came out with a new instruction that attempted to clarify some of these issues with regards to religious apparel. It doesn't really fix the situation for Sikhs. It sort of codifies what's been done thus far. But there's a bit of a Catch-22 with the guidelines, the way they're written right now.
The Army will allow you in, pending your accommodation request, but you are expected to adhere to the current guidelines while your accommodation request is pending. So Sikhs would, in essence, be required to remove their turbans and shave their beards while the religious accommodation request for their turbans and beard is being considered, which is unacceptable to us.
Furthermore - and this includes myself - even once you've served, you've deployed, accommodations are revocable at any time, even now, even today. If I go to a different base or even if I'm deployed once again, I have to apply yet again for the accommodation request.
RATH: I'm hoping you could explain this more for people because to someone of Indian background, or even British background, it sounds really strange to hear of Sikhs being excluded from the military. In India and other countries, Sikhs serve disproportionately. And there's a really proud military tradition. Can you talk about that a little bit?
KALSI: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And you're right on the money with regards to the military tradition. I'm fourth generation military myself. My great-grandfather was in the Royal British Army. My grandfather and father both served honorably in the Indian Air Force. And today, I serve in the U.S. Army.
You know, this is a very common story. Many, many Sikhs have such a long history of military service in Britain, in Canada and in India. If a Sikh wants to join, they simply, you know, walk up to the recruiter's office and sign up. In the United States today, that process is broken.
RATH: What Kamal Kalsi and other Sikhs want from the military is a chance to prove themselves.
KALSI: It's one thing to have an academic discussion about diversity, and my turban and beard are not a problem, but it's a whole other thing to just sort of show up on the doorstep and prove it.
RATH: Dr. Kamal Kalsi is a major in the U.S. Army. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.