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1st Sikh in decades graduates Army officer school

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - 5:24pm

SAN ANTONIO – 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."

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.

Rattan 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.

Rattan — who received a master's degree in engineering before pursuing a dental education_ and Kalsi both offer health care skills that are in high demand in an Army stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rattan 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 Rattan 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, 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. 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 Rattan and Kalsi 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," Singh said. "We don't want to be perpetual outsiders."

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