Editor’s Note: Maj. Gen. Steven Hashem served for 37 years in the U.S. Army and was the former director of training, knowledge and futures for
the U.S. Special Operations Command Center. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Steven Hashem says American Sikhs are barred from serving in the U.S. military because of their faith
Military prevents service unless special accommodation is sought for turbans, he says
Every Veterans Day, like millions of Americans, I remember and honor those who have served in the U.S. military.
As a major general with more than 37 years’ experience in the United States Army, I know firsthand the commitment required to serve in the greatest military on Earth. However, as we pay tribute to those who have served, it’s also critical to recognize those who are still prohibited from serving the nation they love.
I am speaking of American Sikhs, who are currently barred from serving in the U.S. military because of their articles of faith. The tenets of the Sikh faith demand that Sikh men refrain from shaving their beards and require them to keep their unshorn hair tied neatly under a turban. This religious commitment, like our proud military service, is one that honors equality and justice for all.
The right to exercise the religion of one’s own choosing is a core American value. It is enshrined in our First Amendment. No American should ever have to choose between following his or her religious tenets and serving the country with honor. That’s not who we are as a nation.
Prior to the implementation of the current restrictive policy in 1981, Sikhs served honorably in the U.S. military from World War I through the Vietnam War.
Sikhs with turbans and unshorn hair have likewise served bravely in military forces throughout the world, including the UK and Canada. These countries would be the first to point out how valuable Sikh service members are to the armed forces and how their articles of faith do not disrupt unit cohesion, uniformity or their ability to serve.
This distinguished history of service both in the U.S. and elsewhere contrasts sharply with the Pentagon’s ongoing claim that Sikh articles of faith jeopardize safety and uniformity. In fact, similar arguments were employed in the previous century to keep African-Americans and women from integrating into our ranks.
Despite the overall policy, in recent years several Sikh soldiers have received special accommodations to serve in the U.S. Army, completed combat tours, and received promotions and medals for their distinguished service.
In January 2011, Maj. Kamal Singh Kalsi deployed to Afghanistan and served as the officer in charge of an expeditionary emergency room in Helmand province. During that deployment, Kalsi treated over 750 combat casualties under very austere conditions and resuscitated two patients who were clinically dead on arrival. For his commitment to duty and exceptional service, Kalsi was awarded the Bronze Star. (I formerly commanded the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion, in which Kalsi now serves.)
Although Kalsi was allowed to serve because he received a religious accommodation, it is unreasonable and unjust to ask every Sikh who wishes to serve to file such a request. Not only do these requests take weeks or even months to resolve, the process is inherently uncertain. Sikhs are allowed to file for a religious accommodation only if they abandon their identity while their request is pending. Asking an American Sikh to violate his or her religious beliefs while a decision is pending is not a solution and is fundamentally un-American.
The Sikh American community has been part of the American fabric for well over 100 years. They are doctors, farmers, engineers, entrepreneurs and public servants. The fact that they’re not able to serve in the U.S. armed forces runs counter to what our military is designed to protect and what we believe in as a nation.
On Wednesday, Veterans Day, 27 U.S. generals, including myself, signed a letter demanding that the Pentagon drop the ban that forbids American Sikhs to serve in the U.S. military. This letter adds to the growing chorus, which was previously joined by 105 members of Congress, 15 U.S. senators, and 20 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, all of whom also signed letters last year in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.
In the United States, people of all faiths should be able to both serve their country and practice their faith. This Veterans Day, as we honor the commitment to service, we must recognize that nobody should endure such barriers in their struggle to serve. American Sikhs have proven their ability to serve their country without being ordered to violate their religious beliefs.