1st Sikh in Decades Graduates Army Officer School

Michelle Roberts, Yahoo! News, March 23, 2010

The soldiers in standard-issue fatigues and combat boots stood side-by-side repeating their creed {snip}.

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.

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Rattan 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.

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

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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.

Rattan 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 300,000 Sikhs live in the United States. {snip}

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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.

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