SAN ANTONIO – Amid lines of soldiers, one after the other in standard-issue dress uniform and black beret, will be one in a turban and full beard on Monday — the first Sikh in a generation allowed to complete U.S. Army officer basic training without sacrificing the articles of his faith.
Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a 31-year-old dentist, was scheduled Monday to graduate at Fort Sam Houston after the Army made an exemption to a uniform policy that has effectively prevented Sikhs from enlisting since 1984.
"I am overjoyed to serve my country, work with my fellow soldiers and to have completed basic training," said Rattan in a written statement released by the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group that pushed the Army to allow him and another Sikh to go on active duty without sacrificing the unshorn hair mandated by their faith.
The other soldier, Dr. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, is completing an emergency medicine fellowship and is scheduled to attend basic training this summer, said coalition director Amardeep Singh.
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, and Rattan and Kalsi are the first Sikhs to receive them since the policy change.
Rattan and Kalsi both offer health care skills that are in high demand in an Army stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For Sikhs, the unshorn hair wrapped in a turban and a beard are required to keep adherents in the natural state in which God made them, said Singh.
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 worked with an Army tailor to create a flash, the insignia patch worn on the soldier berets, that could be affixed to his black turban, she said.
Singh said allowing Sikhs to serve in the Army is an important part of ensuring they are an integral part of American life. He said it also could counter prejudice.
"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," he said. "We don't want to be perpetual outsiders."
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. Rattan emigrated from India to New York City as a teenager.
Sikhs represent 2 percent of India's population but make up about 30 percent of that country's army officers, Singh said.
An estimated 300,000 Sikhs live in the United States.
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.
She said her group will continue to push a change in Army policy.
"We're still working toward a day when Sikhs don't have to check their faith at the door," she said.