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Why Do Sikhs Want To Serve In The Military?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Jesse Jackson Jr. has been sentenced to 30 months in prison. We'll check in with the barbershop guys to see if the punishment fits the crime and if Jackson can ever make a comeback. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues of religion, spirituality and faith. It's been more than a year since a shooting at a Sikh temple shocked a small town in Wisconsin and killed six people. Since then, there hasn't been much attention given to the Sikh population in the U.S. and some Sikhs see that as a problem, especially when it comes to integrating into mainstream American life. And one very American aspect is drawing special attention. That's the problem Sikhs face when they try to enlist in the U.S. military. Followers of the Sikh faith don't cut their hair or beards and that clashes with military policy. So if Sikhs do get into the military, it's only on a case-by-case basis. Joining us now to talk about this is Major Kamaljeet Kalsi. He's medical director at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Thank you so much for joining us.

MAJOR KAMALJEET KALSI: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: First of all, you're a major, you're obviously in the military. Tell me about your story and your path.

KALSI: Yeah, you know, this all started, actually, back in 2001, seven months before 9/11. The Army recruiters came to my medical school and said, hey, you know, would you like to serve. And I said, you know, I come from three generations of military. My father and my grandmother both served in the Indian Air Force. My great grandfather served in the Royal British Army and if you'll, you know, take me with turban and beard, you know, I'm happy to serve. And they said, yeah, we have no issues. And eight years later, when it came time to be on full-time active duty, they said, what, wait, there actually is this regulation. So apparently, what had happened is in 1981 there was a change to Army uniform policy that said no turbans, no beards, and no yamakas. Well, the Jewish lobby was able to appeal the no yamaka ruling, and the Sikhs, well, we really had no voice. We had no lobby.

So effectively, since 1981, we haven't had - since my entry - any new Sikh recruits. And that's why my chain of command at that time said, you know, we fully support you and we'll put in a letter of support on your behalf and so this has to go up the chain of command. So it took us almost two years, 15,000 petitioners on a letter to Defense Secretary Gates, at that time, 50 congressional signatures on a letter to both Defense Secretary Gates and the White House and, you know, support and pressure from the White House, as well. So it had been quite a bit of a process, but at the end of the day, the Army sort of welcomed me in and said, as long as you can meet our technical requirements, which was, can you wear a helmet, can you wear a gas mask, can you get a good seal, and, you know, we want to make sure that this doesn't affect esprit de corps. As long as you can meet those three requirements, then, you know, we have no issues.

HEADLEE: Why is this particularly important for Sikhs? I mean, I think many people don't realize the history, the long history, of military service and combat for Sikhs. But explain to us why this would be an important role to fill.

KALSI: It's an integral part of our faith. You know, we have this saint-soldier tradition in Sikhism. So we're taught from a very young age that you can't have peace without justice. And a lot of our values are directly in line with military values. And so when we can't exercise that in this country, it really strikes at the hearts of our ability to call ourselves Americans. This is such a critical issue for our community, especially in relation to what happened last year in Oak Creek with that tragic shooting.

You know, when you have members of the Sikh faith that are able to serve in the military, that are able to serve as policeman and firemen and EMS paramedics, you know, that helps to integrate into a community in a much deeper level. You know, when you see a fireman pull your daughter out of a burning building, you're going to say, wow, I love this guy, this is a person - a member of my own community. And that's sort of the level of integration that we are looking for as a community.

HEADLEE: Let me bring to you then the arguments - and you've referred to them already - but these arguments against allowing Sikhs to serve. And one of them is - some officers say, well, the helmet won't fit over the hair and turban, the gas mask doesn't fit over the beard. And they also feel - and when you talked about esprit de corps, what you're really talking about is that some officers feel if you relax these rules for one member of the military, or several members of the military, it'll make the other soldiers say, well, why can't I grow my hair out, as well? How do you argue against these?

KALSI: Well, you know, the Army did its homework when they were accommodating me. So I showed them that with sort of my sports turban that I can easily wear a helmet. I showed them that I can get a very good seal with my gas mask, even with my beard. And the Army didn't take my word for it, they put me - they gassed me several times. And...

HEADLEE: Lovely.

KALSI: Lovely.

HEADLEE: That must have been enjoyable.

KALSI: It was great. The last sort of concern they had with regards to esprit de corps - you know, I'll tell you, when I was deployed, we were in Helmand Province, we were in one of the bloodiest zones of theater. We worked together very closely and...

HEADLEE: ...Helmand Province in Afghanistan, of course.

KALSI: In Afghanistan, yes, ma'am. So when I took care of soldiers, you know, they'd be shot up or blown up from IEDs, they'd be hurting, and not a single soldier ever came up to me and said, you know, I don't want you to treat me 'cause you got a turban and beard, you know. Nobody cared, you know, as long as you could get the job done. I'm not saying that, you know, we would ever put our fellow military members in harm's way, you know. If Sikhs could not meet any of the physical or technical requirements then, you know, we're not advocating for them to be able to join the military. But a lot of those folks end up washing out of boot camp, you know. That's why they send you to boot camp right away. And right now, as it stands, you know, we can't even get into the recruiter's office, much less get to boot camp.

HEADLEE: Major Kamal Kalsi, he's medical director at Fort Bragg. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Major Kalsi, thank you so much and thank you for your service.

KALSI: Oh, thank you, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.