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Sikhs in Service
August 9, 2012 2:34 PM   Subscribe

There are 22 Sikhs currently serving in the U.S. Army. Since 2010 they have been allowed to leave their hair and beards uncut and wear turbans.

Sikhs have been serving in the U.S. army since World War I and between 1948 and 1984 were allowed to serve while "retaining their articles of faith." In 1984 a ban was put in place alleging that turbans and uncut hair present health and safety hazards, which effectively barred practicing Sikhs from serving.

Army Captains Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi were among the first to re-break down the barrier to service and Rattan has said, "I'm living what Sikhs believe in, which is service for others ... and this is the best place to do it, with the military."
posted by brookeb (52 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thats like 440 vanilla soldiers. Sikhs are fucking hard core. I just hope they're not treated like garbage by their fellows for it.
posted by absalom at 2:43 PM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Admittedly only very slightly related but here is a nifty photo of a Sikh motorcycle club on the beach in Vancouver.
posted by elizardbits at 2:45 PM on August 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


Thanks for the post. I've been enjoying reading about Baltej Dhillon, the first turbaned Sihk to serve in the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and is now the head of RCMP's intelligence unit in Vancouver. He is an interesting and outspoken guy about this topic and many others.
posted by jessamyn at 2:51 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Army aside, I find it interesting that any number of religions require males to
leave hair uncut and to grow beards.
posted by Postroad at 2:51 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Final link is broked.
posted by mrnutty at 2:52 PM on August 9, 2012


I'm conflicted about this. On the one hand, diversity good.

On the other hand, the turban is a symbol that's closely related to the Sikh religion. As expressed by one Sikh in the .mil article, it identifies them as "warrior saints".

With 22 Sikhs in the entire Army, there's not much danger of confusing the Army with the Sikh religion, or believing that the US Army serves that religion's goals.

But what if some large evangelical denomination decided that all its men must have a cross shaved into the back of their heads? Having made this accommodation for the Sikhs, how could the Army then dig in and say they couldn't do that?
posted by gurple at 2:57 PM on August 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


There actually doesn't appear to be an article on the wiki about Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi at all, so unless that was intended to point elsewhere, there isn't a link about the guy. There's a bit of info on Wikipedia, though.
posted by asnider at 2:59 PM on August 9, 2012


In 1984 a ban was put in place alleging that turbans and uncut hair present health and safety hazards, which effectively barred practicing Sikhs from serving.

Per the "2010" link (and my own experience), Sikhs already in the service were grandfathered in. Some of them served for a long time after that -- I ran into one in mid-'90s.
posted by Etrigan at 3:00 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gunga Din.
posted by Mblue at 3:01 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a few good articles about Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi. I can replace the broken link in the post with the one the OP wants.
posted by jessamyn at 3:01 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


But what if some large evangelical denomination decided that all its men must have a cross shaved into the back of their heads? Having made this accommodation for the Sikhs, how could the Army then dig in and say they couldn't do that?

Or what if the weapons American troops used to invade predominantly Muslim countries were inscribed with references to Christian scripture? Yikes, that would be scary stuff.

That horse is already way out of the barn.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:04 PM on August 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


I did some OP4 training when I was enlisted. This stood for "Operation Force" and you had US military people basically playing the "bad guy." There were people that would dress up in Russian Uniforms, use Russian weapons, etc. When/if you captured them their papers would be in Russian, their maps, everything. You then had to decide what was actually operationally relevant (SECRET RUSSIAN PLANS) and what was soldier spank material.

When we did the Middle Eastern training those folks had beards, so I know exceptions were made. This was obviously training, and not combat, but if that army did it that way the OP4 guys really went out of their way to insure as much accuracy as possible.

I remember the none of the OP4 guys knew any Middle Eastern languages and this was back in the early 90s, so I am sure their faked accent were probably inspired by "Die Hard" or some terrorist Hollywood films. It was a good time. It was also total stereotyping, but unless you get people to dress in the right uniforms, and wear their hair in the correct conventions, I'm not sure how a troop would otherwise learn to recognize a General from a grunt when it comes to the guys you just swept up.

We learned Geneva Convention stuff, interrogation techniques, etc.

You also weren't always the capturer. Sometimes you were the prisoner and you had to try to gather intel and escape.

It was basically LARPing with real weapons and vehicles. These memories are surreal to me, because when the training day was done you went and drank with your captors, then you went to your cot to crash and shower and in the morning you started the day again in the cage.

You got reviewed on whether or not you reported the right stuff up the chain of command. It was a lot like watching a movie where you see the foreshadowing laid out in front of you and you picked up the map and codebook that allowed the allies to win the battle!
posted by cjorgensen at 3:05 PM on August 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


I wonder how the turban/facial hair interferes with the wearing of gas masks.. which is what I'd heard was one of the reasons that there are rules regarding facial hair while in the military.
posted by mrbill at 3:05 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


From the previous post on Sikhs: Buckingham Palace guards, the first Sikhs to guard the Queen.
posted by desjardins at 3:05 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder how the turban/facial hair interferes with the wearing of gas masks.. which is what I'd heard was one of the reasons that there are rules regarding facial hair while in the military.

From the 2010 link, attributed to Captain (Dr.) Tejdeep Singh Rattan:
"My uncle, who was in the Indian Army, said he had no problem with that while was engaged in jungle warfare. He said he put some Vaseline in his beard, which kept the ticks away, and it sealed every single time."
Which synchs with what other militaries around the world have found. It's really just that the people making the rules for the U.S. military are used to seeing soldiers and Marines and sailors without beards, and so, goddammit, soldiers and Marines and sailors shouldn't have beards!
posted by Etrigan at 3:09 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:18 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's really just that the people making the rules for the U.S. military are used to seeing soldiers and Marines and sailors without beards, and so, goddammit, soldiers and Marines and sailors shouldn't have beards!

I think it's about conforming more than anything. They are a single identity, not individuals. They are not supposed to represent any race or religion, or any single person. Just the country. (Although I am perfectly aware that this doesn't happen as planned.. some soldiers/units make everything they do about religion.)

It's also about discipline. Soldiers have to follow orders. They have to do what they're told and do it right the first time.

And of course there's health issues. It's harder to get lice if you don't have hair, plus your own hair can't be used as a weapon against you.

I am not vouching for the benefits for/against.. I'm just saying, these are the reasons they do what they do.
posted by Malice at 3:54 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are plenty of soldiers, Marines and even sailors in Afghanistan right now with beards, because it (supposedly) makes dealing with the locals easier. There are "reasons" why the U.S. military doesn't like beards, but really, what it comes down to is that the old guys in charge don't like beards at the moment. Expect this regulation to get relaxed as the sergeants and captains wearing beards right now move up in the ranks.
posted by Etrigan at 3:58 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


My rant:
If a Sigh ran for high office, many would wonder about his beliefs; if an atheist ran--no way. If a religious guy said he was concientious objector, they would ask his religion; if an atheist said he was objector, no way because no god
posted by Postroad at 4:15 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a religious guy said he was concientious objector, they would ask his religion; if an atheist said he was objector, no way because no god

Not the case:
WHO QUALIFIES?
Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don't have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.
posted by Etrigan at 4:31 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


But what if some large evangelical denomination decided that all its men must have a cross shaved into the back of their heads? Having made this accommodation for the Sikhs, how could the Army then dig in and say they couldn't do that?

They couldn't. And that's fine. It's called "freedom," and it's ostensibly their job to defend that sort of thing.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:37 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


>Sikhs are fucking hard core.

These guys geneseeds need collecting, they’re destined for the Emperor.

Right that’s it, I’m getting the milliput out and sculpting beards and turbans on my space marines.
posted by wilful at 4:41 PM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


This makes me happy, that our military is finding ways to include Americans of many types.
posted by _paegan_ at 5:02 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was in the military for 9 years... I would gladly have gladly served alongside Sikhs and Gurkhas (though of course Gurkha allegiance lies with the UK). However I was never comfortable with the idea of those with other citizenships serving in the U.S. military proper, since that made it feel more like I was in a mercenary force and because it didn't fit well with oath we all took. I feel that non-Americans should be form a separate (but honorable) military force, much like the state-level National Guard or the French Foreign Legion. These days I'm a pacifist, I have to admit, but my feelings on the issue haven't changed much.
posted by crapmatic at 5:05 PM on August 9, 2012


And to clarify what I said.... if the Sikhs are American citizens already, then I'd expect them to be serving alongside us in the regular military, not in an auxiliary force.
posted by crapmatic at 5:07 PM on August 9, 2012


Do they go on Sikh and Destroy missions?
posted by Renoroc at 5:42 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


But what if some large evangelical denomination decided that all its men must have a cross shaved into the back of their heads? Having made this accommodation for the Sikhs, how could the Army then dig in and say they couldn't do that?
Wait, why would the Army need to stop this? Why should Sikhs be allowed to do their religious thing, but not evangelicals?
posted by !Jim at 5:44 PM on August 9, 2012


Only 22? Sikh police officers have become such a common sight in Toronto that the turban (in TPS blue) has almost become a more prominent image of police authority than the constable's hat, especially considering how many non-Sikh officers go hatless.

In a quick googling, I could not find a number for how many turbaned Sikhs are serving in the Canadian Forces, but I bet it is a lot more than 22.
posted by 256 at 5:47 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't see this in the article, but I can't help but wonder about helmets? The doctors may never have to wear helmets (although Hawkeye wore his in a few episodes of MASH), but wouldn't others possibly have to think about that?

Being allowed to wear the turban and a beard are cool and all, but what about the possibility of one more potential casualty as a result of not wearing a helmet?

Any thoughts?
posted by dfm500 at 5:50 PM on August 9, 2012


But what if some large evangelical denomination decided that all its men must have a cross shaved into the back of their heads? Having made this accommodation for the Sikhs, how could the Army then dig in and say they couldn't do that?


We learned last week that, in the '90s, it was apparently easier to get demoted for being drunk than for being in a neo-nazi group. The US Army has some fucked-up priorities, yo. This moves a little closer to correcting that.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:53 PM on August 9, 2012


I didn't see this in the article, but I can't help but wonder about helmets?

Well, the second link says, "During the BOLC course, the captain was easily able to wear his Kevlar helmet over a custom-made Army Camouflage Uniform turban with rank insignia he had created and paid for himself." The pictures show him wearing two different turbans: a larger black one, for his graduation ceremony, and a camo one, which basically looks like a tight cloth cap, for training exercises. Dress turban/combat turban, I guess? Seems like a good system.
posted by ostro at 6:34 PM on August 9, 2012


It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.

Just don't have them as your leader's bodyguards.
posted by srboisvert at 6:41 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm just pleased to learn that SikhiWiki is a thing that exists.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:42 PM on August 9, 2012



But what if some large evangelical denomination decided that all its men must have a cross shaved into the back of their heads? Having made this accommodation for the Sikhs, how could the Army then dig in and say they couldn't do that?


The difference here is that the Sikhs didn't just *decide* to wear a turban as a mere "symbol" of their religion. To compare the turban to a "cross shaved into the back of their heads" in itself shows a gross misunderstanding of what Sikhism, the turban or the Khalsa is all about. Unfortunately, we just saw a result of that recently.

The U.S. army is lucky to have these warriors serving for their country. If the Sikhs cannot be who they are, they are clearly fighting for the wrong people!
posted by xm at 6:59 PM on August 9, 2012


srboisvert : Actually, that kind of speaks to the reputation for loyalty the Sikhs have. No-one seemed to think that after Operation Blue Star it might not be a good idea to have a couple of Sikhs with automatic weapons in arms reach of the woman who ordered it. And if they thought it, they didn't act on it.
posted by Grimgrin at 7:02 PM on August 9, 2012


@Rhomboid- there is also sikhnet.com
posted by xm at 7:06 PM on August 9, 2012


crapmatic: I feel that non-Americans should be form a separate (but honorable) military force, much like the state-level National Guard or the French Foreign Legion. These days I'm a pacifist, I have to admit, but my feelings on the issue haven't changed much.

I remember several Canadians in my outfit. (63-71) Also a Czech, who'd actually fought against Soviet troops as a teenager. I don't think separate but honorable will fly...the Tuskegee Airmen, and all that. (I don't think you weren't drifting into those waters, but I'm just saying...)

Funny, but I'm not having any trouble with the Sikh--after all, he's got a camo turban. But I'm having trouble with the Evangelicals with crosses shaved on the backs of their heads. I don't claim to be rational about this, except that I really do make a distinction between serving with honor and killing for Jesus. I wouldn't mind serving beside warriors, but ravers give me the creeps.
posted by mule98J at 7:19 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I came in wondering about helmets and gas masks, too. If all they need is a specialized turban to fit under a helmet and some sealant 'round the edge of a mask, that sounds like a non-issue.

Though, I have no idea, with the military, which points of appearance are practical and which are just to satisfy a fussy bunch of old men. I suspect it's much more of the latter than the former.
posted by cmyk at 7:30 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a religious guy said he was concientious objector, they would ask his religion; if an atheist said he was objector, no way because no god

Not the case:


Yeah, but we had to go to the Supreme Court before the government conceded atheists had morals. And there's still that "comparable to religious belief" bit that allows wiggle room. You really think a draft board full of hard core evangelicals is going to let an atheist object? You should win on appeal, but you might end up in prison first.

We can desperately hope that, should the draft be reinstated, the objectors will get a better deal than they have in the past and there are probably reasons to believe that (from war to war, the situation for objectors in the US has consistently improved, plus there was a very high rate of successful objection at the end of conscription in the US), but non-religious objectors definitely have far more to worry about than religious objectors. (And don't think they don't worry. Even members of the so-called historical peace churches worry and create paper trails.)
posted by hoyland at 7:42 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


You really think a draft board full of hard core evangelicals is going to let an atheist object?

Yes, I do happen to think that a group of federal employees would consider itself to be bound by federal law that was codified based on legal precedent of the last half-century. But I'm not nearly as scared of the Jesusites as you appear to be.
posted by Etrigan at 7:56 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are "reasons" why the U.S. military doesn't like beards, but really, what it comes down to is that the old guys in charge don't like beards at the moment.

No. You're completely wrong on that. It's a safety issue (as mentioned above - gas masks, hair pulling, lice, etc.)
posted by Malice at 8:13 PM on August 9, 2012


It's a safety issue (as mentioned above - gas masks, hair pulling, lice, etc.)

So none of those things is a factor in Afghanistan at the moment? They're not a factor for the 22 Sikhs in active service who are the subject of this post? Are you saying that those 22 people are given special combatives and hygiene training, or that the U.S. Army has exactly 22 special beard-compatible gas masks made for those guys that they can't make any more of?

Gas masks - see the "2010" article in the post.
Hair pulling - we're not talking about a ZZ Top beard here.
Lice - you know they're allowed to have hair immediately adjacent to the beard area, right?
Discipline/uniformity - they allow mustaches. Not everyone gets the exact same haircut, either. Some wear non-issue glasses.

Those aren't "issues," they're excuses. The reason is that the guys in charge don't like beards. Full stop. And you know what? That's fine. It's the way it is because it's the way it is, and the Army doesn't need a reason to tell people to shave if there's no good reason for those people to have a beard.
posted by Etrigan at 8:37 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've loved Sikhi and been favorably inclined towards Sikhs since I first learned about it through encountering Dya Singh's music.

One of my favorite quotes:
My faith tradition tells me that to have a "tolerant" society is to demean society. If I say that I will tolerate you, I am demeaning you. If I say that I will accept you, I am still demeaning you. Now if I was to say, "I will respect you," that would be slightly better. But what if I said, "I will lay down my life for you!"? You have to try and have that kind of spirit of sacrifice. — Bhai Sahib Bhai Mohinder Singh Ji at the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions
At the time I discovered Dya's music, I was very much in a "seeking" mode, spiritually. My experience jibed with the saying (don't remember where I first came across this), "Sikhs are immensely warm and welcoming. Sikhi is not." They don't just not seek converts, it's an uphill climb for those who are called, is my understanding. Yet at the same time, the Sikhs I've met have been more open and welcoming to strangers from other belief systems than just about anybody else I've encountered. Now that I've found the spiritual path my feet seem called to, I appreciate that. It feels kind of like "We welcome you because you are you, not because you are a potential convert." And the pakora at the Hayward Gurdwara are better than at any Indian or Pakistani restaurant I've ever eaten at. The genuinely warm smiles from the people serving them were only incidental.
posted by Lexica at 9:13 PM on August 9, 2012


[added the correct link to the post per OP request]
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 PM on August 9, 2012


A recent BBC documentary, Remembrance - The Sikh Story.
Documentary examining why followers of the Sikh religion were marked out as a 'martial race' under the British Empire, and how thousands of Sikh soldiers valiantly laid down their lives for Britain's freedom across two world wars.

With contributions from eminent historians, military experts and war veterans, the film features the last-ever interview with legendary WW2 Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji, and the first television broadcast of a rare audio recording of a WW1 Sikh prisoner of war, handed to Britain in 2010 after 94 years in German hands.
posted by zamboni at 9:42 PM on August 9, 2012


I used to lie awake and worry the aliens would come and turn us all into mush but now that I know we have enough Sikhs in the armed forces to fight off any invasion, I think everything's chill.
posted by samofidelis at 9:49 PM on August 9, 2012


Yes, I do happen to think that a group of federal employees would consider itself to be bound by federal law that was codified based on legal precedent of the last half-century.

Local draft boards aren't composed of federal employees. They're volunteers. As far as I know, that has always been the case. What has not always been the case, I believe, is that veterans are now excluded. (Historically, I believe the local draft boards and the leadership of the American Legion post tended to bear a striking similarity. That was clearly good for objectors.)

But I'm not nearly as scared of the Jesusites as you appear to be.

The irony being that if I hang out with pacifists, there's a good chance I'm hanging out with Christians. But no, I don't particularly have a great deal faith that a group of people hostile to atheists and likely hostile to objectors (based on past experience) would give an atheist objector a fair hearing. I think you'd win eventually because some federal employees would step in, but that's not really good enough.
posted by hoyland at 4:08 AM on August 10, 2012


a group of people hostile to atheists and likely hostile to objectors (based on past experience)

To clarify, hostile to atheists because my hypothetical draft board is composed of hard core evangelicals and hostile to objectors because they're a local draft board (previous drafts being the past experience).
posted by hoyland at 4:10 AM on August 10, 2012


Following some of these links-I am embarrassed that I didn't know that there's (a) a reason all of the Sikhs I met and new growing up were white and American-born, and (b) that I guess they're two separate religions? Or sects? Or strains.
Can anyone tell me about the difference between these groups? I understand that the Sikh Dharma people are mostly 60s/70s converts (and their subsequent families), and there's a big emphasis on yoga. And I guess traditional Sikhs think less of them?
Anyone want to explain beyond the wikipedia link I found?
posted by atomicstone at 11:18 AM on August 10, 2012


This article, published after Yogi Bhajan's death, goes into the history of the organization and some of the controversy around it: Death of a Yogi.

With the disclaimer that I am not a Sikh and my knowledge of Gurbani and Gurmat is pretty thin (although better than 99% of Americans, I'd guess), the reading I did when I was looking into Sikhi made it clear to me that while 3HO (Yogi Bhajan's organization of mostly-Anglo, dressing-all-in-white folks you mention) may call itself Sikhism, there are many 3HO practices that are directly contrary to traditional, based-on-the-Sri-Guru-Granth-Sahib Sikhi. Things where either the SGGS or rulings from the Akal Takhat explicitly say "Don't do this" are regular, sometimes essential parts of 3HO practice.

Rick Ross's website has a page on 3HO/Yogi Bhajan, and there are various "ex-3HO" sites on the web. This blog is written by one ex-3HOer who left 3HO but (unusually) remained a Sikh. She hasn't posted recently, but her back postings discuss a number of the ways in which 3HO goes against Sikh teachings and practices.
posted by Lexica at 1:13 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I ran across it randomly, but the guys in this video embody the reputation of Sikhs as warriors. (cringe inducing, some blood)
posted by desjardins at 9:35 PM on August 12, 2012


Postroad: Army aside, I find it interesting that any number of religions require males to
leave hair uncut and to grow beards.
A law from the Old Testament demands it of the faithful, so it's not very surprising that many Abrahamic faiths require it.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:01 PM on August 16, 2012


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