Army doctor sees hard-won battle to practice Sikh faith in uniform an opportunity for others
Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi stood backstage at the Democratic National Convention, watching through tears as the parents of a fallen Muslim-American soldier delivered a powerful message about sacrifice and the dangers of discrimination.
As a Sikh, Kalsi does not share the Muslim faith of Khizr and Ghazala Khan and their slain son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan. But he found common cause in their call for Americans to honor military service and sacrifice regardless of one’s religion.
That night Kalsi wore a black suit and tie, in addition to the pink turban that holds his unshorn hair, both symbols of his faith. His work clothes -- the uniform of a U.S. Army officer – includes a camouflage-pattern turban.
It’s the embodiment of a small victory in a battle he’s waged with the military establishment over a rule he believes restricts the opportunity of Sikhs and members of other religious groups to serve in the Armed Forces.
The 40-year-old Riverdale resident who grew up in Lodi is believed to be the first Sikh soldier to be allowed to wear his articles of faith while in uniform since the military in 1981 imposed a ban on facial hair and other religious symbols deemed to not fit into its uniform appearance standards.
To be sure, Kalsi has opened a window for those like him. But his breakthrough has been limited. Others who want to serve with outward manifestations of their religious identity intact must still go through the same arduous process as he did, which can last up to a year, and approval is not guaranteed.
So he continues to push for such restrictions to be removed entirely, allowing Sikhs and members of other religious communities to serve more freely.
For his efforts, he is one of nearly 40 people being honored by the Sikh Coalition this month in a portrait exhibit of Sikh-Americans to mark the 15th anniversary of the coalition and its efforts to raise awareness of the Sikh community’s contributions to American society.
In early 2001, while Kalsi was in medical school in California, Army recruiters came to the campus looking for doctors. He told them he’d love to serve but that he came with a beard and turban.
The recruiters said it was fine.
So Kalsi joined up in the Reserves and reported for duty at West Point and various bases while he finished medical school.
Once he became a doctor though, the Army called. He told commanders at his new assignment that he was an observant Sikh who kept a beard and wore a turban. The officers said they’d check but once again he was assured that all would be fine.
“A month later, I got a very different call,” Kalsi said. The brass had looked at the 1981 regulation and said Kalsi would have to shave his beard and remove the turban.
An officer asked Kalsi what it would take for him to remove them.
“I said, ‘Look, sir, when the time comes I’ll bleed for my country. I’ll die for my country,’” Kalsi said. “But I can’t give you that which doesn’t belong to me. I can’t give you my faith. I can’t give you the turban and my hair which belongs to my God.”
Eighteen months later, in 2010, the command relented, allowing Kalsi to wear his turban and other articles of faith when he deployed to an isolated combat hospital in war-torn Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during the troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama.
“We saw some of the bloodiest injuries of the war. But none of the soldiers ever stopped me and said ‘don’t take care of me because you have a beard, don’t take care of me because you’re wearing a turban,’” Kalsi said.
Sikh population estimates in the United States range from 200,000 to 500,000, and many have been here for four generations or longer. Sikhs arrived on the West Coast in the 1800s and helped build the transcontinental railroad.
Despite their history, they have been the target of hate crimes, which the Sikh Coalition said have increased since 9/11.
According to acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal, who is also Sikh, confusion about the tenets of their beliefs have made Sikhs an easy and repeated target for discrimination. During the Iranian Hostage Crisis in the 1970s people would confuse Sikhs with Iranians. During problems with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s people thought Sikhs were Middle Eastern. During the first Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, people thought they were Iraqi.
Woven into the cultural and religious identity of an observant Sikh man are both the outward symbols of his faith and the willingness to take up arms, both literally and figuratively.
Early in the life of the faith, during the rule of Mughals, a Muslim empire that controlled large portions of India from the 1500s to the 1800s, Sikhs were persecuted, driven to near extinction and told they could not wear turbans, grow beards or carry weapons.
During this period Sikhs established a military tradition that has lasted to this day, calling on the men to become “soldier saints” and not to hide the articles of their faith, which, beyond a beard and turban, include a bracelet and a small sword or dagger.
Grewal, a childhood friend, said that Kalsi embodies much of what is taught to young Sikhs – to stand up against injustice and to serve the larger community.
The prosecutor was working in a private law office across from the Pentagon on 9/11 when planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the U.S. military headquarters. He left private practice to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney, serving in Brooklyn and Newark before becoming taking over as prosecutor.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey in the late 80s and 90s there weren’t many Sikhs around, both Kalsi and Grewal said. The fledgling community’s youth would support each other as each — isolated in their individual towns — experienced different forms of bullying or ostracism.
Kalsi said Grewal and other young Sikhs a few years older helped him through those times.
Even while serving in the Army, Kalsi has noticed increased scrutiny at airports along with veiled and not-so-veiled derogatory comments from people calling him “Osama” or telling him to “go back where he came from.”
Despite these attitudes, Kalsi said young Sikhs still want to join the military. He fields weekly phone calls from young Sikhs interested in serving.
But for now they must complete a burdensome application process for an exemption or remove their articles of faith, he said.
Since Kalsi’s pioneering work to obtain the exemption at least one Jewish rabbi, two Muslim doctors and seven other Sikhs in the military have been allowed to wear their articles of faith.
But the regulation still allows for a unit commander’s discretion, so even if a soldier has gotten an exemption from one command if the soldier transfers to a new post the new commander could rescind the exemption.
A spokesman for the Department of Defense did not return calls seeking comment about the regulation.
As he went through the lengthy process to receive his own exemption, Kalsi supplied proof that he could don a helmet or safely use a gas mask. But the main issue that concerned officials was what the military refers to as “unit cohesion” – basically, will wearing the articles of faith set him apart and cause friction in the ranks.
“Those were the same types of arguments used to keep out African Americans, women and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) community,” Kalsi said.
Kalsi along with the coalition and other groups is seeking a permanent change to the defense regulation. Because without a permanent change the next president could keep the regulation in place as it is, remove it entirely or make it more restrictive.
While there isn’t an official process pushing for the change, Kalsi is confident that they could see a permanent change in the coming months.
Democratic candidate for Vice President Tim Kaine has weighed in on the issue. In 2014 he called on the defense department to accommodate religious items for Sikhs and others.
Kalsi believes there is a gap in the thinking about this between high-level bureaucrats making policy decisions and service members in the field across the globe.
“Nobody cares, they just want you to do a good job,” Kalsi said. “It’s a core American principle: It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like. As long as you can do your job, you’re part of the community. You’re part of the American fabric.”