Sikh American soldiers continue to campaign for right to wear beard, turban

Manpreet Kaur sits on a mat at the grave of her brother, Cpl. Gurpreet Singh, at Arlington National Cemetery, accompanied by Singh’s niece. Singh served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was killed in Afghanistan in 2011. He is only the second Sikh soldier to be buried in the cemetery. Photo courtesy of Sikh American Veterans Alliance

(RNS) — Gurpreet Singh died with his boots on for a Marine Corps that wouldn’t let him wear a turban in accommodation of his Sikh faith. Singh was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011, one of the 2,312 American military personnel who have perished in that conflict.

On Thursday (July 29), a solemn memorial ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery recognized Cpl. Singh, who, after a long process, has become the second Sikh soldier buried in that hallowed ground — a khanda sword symbol etched on his tombstone.

“Gurpreet loved his country and his sacrifice is an inspiration to many young Sikh men and women to pursue service careers,“ said Guldeep Kaur, who is Sikh and a petty officer with the Navy. Kaur said she personally escorted Singh’s parents — while in her uniform — to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony.

The ceremony brings to the fore again the unequal religious accommodations extended to Sikhs across the military.

According to the advocacy group Sikh American Veterans Alliance, there are roughly 100 Sikhs serving in America’s armed forces, many of whom still must serve — like Singh — without wearing beards or the dastar (turban), both of which are articles of their faith.

Kamal Kalsi became the first Sikh American soldier to receive a uniform accommodation in 2009 for the U.S. Army, which allowed him to continue to serve while wearing a dastar and keeping his beard. It is a religious imperative for Sikhs to not cut their hair. During the First World War, a ban on beards was put into effect over concerns beards could interfere with the seal of a gas mask. Coincidentally, the conflict was also the first in which an observant Sikh American participated. 

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