When 31-year-old Tejdeep Singh Rattan graduated into the army from Fort Sam Houston at San Antonio, Texas this week he did something that no member of his community had done in nearly three decades. He became the first Sikh in a generation who had continued wearing a traditional turban and yet joined the United States military, a feat not achieved since 1981.
On graduation day, surrounded by a gaggle of other members of the Sikh community and media a beaming Captain Rattan said to reporters, “I'm feeling very humbled. I'm a soldier. This has been my dream.”
Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition, a community-based organisation, spoke to The Hindu about the rare exception that Captain Rattan’s case is. She explained that in 1981, the U.S. Army banned “conspicuous” religious articles of faith for its service members. This included a ban on Sikh turbans and unshorn hair.
Ms Kaur said that Captain Rattan was initially enrolled in a dentistry course and signed up for training for the army back in 2006 through a Health Professionals. At the time he was told he would be able to enter the army wearing the traditional Sikh turban. However by the time he was near graduation, in 2008, he was informed that that decision had been revoked. It was at this point that the Sikh Coalition got involved, Ms. Kaur said.
The Sikh Coalition along with legal counsel supported Captain Rattan in putting in an application for an exemption from the U.S. Army. After a process that was drawn out over nearly six months, they finally got news that the application had succeeded. Additionally another Sikh applicant had succeeded, it was learnt -- Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, also with a medical background.
On the victory for the Sikh community Ms. Kaur said “We’re very happy that the army has accommodated Captain Rattan. We are working towards the day when it will be possible for all Sikhs to serve in the army without compromising their religion.” She added that Captain Rattan’s case illustrated that Sikhs could serve in the army with no issues around “unit cohesion, safety concerns or esprit de corps”
A press release by the Sikh Coalition said that contrary to the concerns of some, Captain Rattan was able to meet all the requirements of a solider during basic training. He wore a helmet over a small turban during field exercises. During gas mask exercises, he was able to successfully create a seal with his gas mask, the release said.
While the general policy disallowing Sikhs from maintaining their articles of faith in the military still remains in effect, the two recent exceptions reflect the U.S. army’s need for soldiers with health care skills. According to reports this may be linked to continued the country’s engagement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Captain Rattan said he did not encounter any trouble from fellow soldiers during training. "The Army is all about what you have to offer… If you're up there running with them, you have good scores, you run neck-and-neck with them, they love you," he said, adding, "I made a lot of friends.”