On his first day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Simratpal Singh sat in a barber chair where new cadets get their hair buzzed short, forced to choose between showing his faith and living it.
Cadet Singh had grown up a Sikh. As part of his faith, he had never cut his hair or beard. But his faith also encouraged protection of the oppressed, which inspired him to join the Army.
The Army would not allow a soldier with long hair or a beard, so that day he watched his locks drop to the floor.
“Your self-image, what you believe in, is cut away,” said Singh, a captain who was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord until recently.
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For a long time after, he would shave without looking in the mirror.
That was almost 10 years ago. The cadet graduated, led a platoon of combat engineers who cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star. He was recently reassigned from JBLM to Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
This month, the Army finally granted Singh a religious accommodation that allows him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban.
“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” the 27-year-old former Auburn resident said. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”
It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith.
A handful of other exceptions have been made for soldiers not deemed front-line combat troops. One was a New Delhi native who formerly served as a medic in a JBLM cavalry troop.
At JBLM, Simranpreet Lamba fashioned his camouflage turban by buying a sheet of cloth and cutting it to fit his needs. He had another turban that fit under his combat helmet, and he found a way to firmly fix a gas mask to his face by applying petroleum jelly to his beard.
"There's nothing about being Sikh, about our turban and our beard, that can stop us from excelling in the Army, " Lamba said in a 2013 interview with The News Tribune after being promoted to corporal.
The accommodation recently granted to Singh is only temporary, lasting a month while Army officials decide whether to give it permanent status.
If they decide not to, the captain could be confronted with the decision of whether to cut his hair or leave the Army. He has said he is prepared to sue if the accommodation is not made permanent.
“This is a precedent-setting case,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty. “A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions.”
The Army does not comment on individual personnel decisions, said Lt. Col. Jennifer R. Johnson, a spokeswoman. She added that future requests for accommodations would be evaluated “on a case-by-case basis, considering the impact on unit and individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline, and health and safety of the force.”
For years, the Army has argued that beards in the ranks — religious or not — threatened the very foundations of military order and discipline.
The United States military has become increasingly inclusive, allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly, and women to serve in combat roles. But it has held a stiff line on uniforms and grooming standards. Though over the centuries these standards have included powdered wigs and Civil War mutton chops, in recent decades the military has insisted on men being clean-shaven with hair shorn high and tight.
Resistance to departures from uniformity is so strong that while official standards allow for toupees, it took a Supreme Court case and an act of Congress in the 1980s to clear the way for skullcaps.
In recent years, almost all requests for a religious accommodation for a beard have been dismissed.
However, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Special Operations soldiers have had lax facial-hair regulations, and having a beard has even become a mark of elite soldiers.
This summer, a United States District Court judge rejected the safety argument, noting that more than 100,000 troops have been allowed to grow beards for medical reasons such as acne and sensitive skin. The judge ruled the Army’s denial was illegal. But the decision applied only to students enrolling in ROTC, leaving the larger question of beards for active-duty troops untouched.
Sikhs say lifting the ban is important to them because of their long history of military service. Sikhism developed in northwestern India as a religion centered on protecting the innocent and resisting tyrants during long bouts of conflict and oppression from invading Mughals and Afghans. Bearded Sikhs fought in the United States Army in World War II and Vietnam. Today, Sikhs in full religious garb serve in militaries around the world.
For centuries, Sikh teachings have required adherents to leave their hair and beard unshorn, and to wear a turban.
“It was a way to identify the Sikhs, who became a sort of military order that stood up against oppression,” said Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor who is a major in the Army Reserve.
Kalsi got permission to grow a beard in 2009. He was the first of only three Sikhs to receive permission before Singh. Two Muslims and a Jewish rabbi also have been granted accommodations since 2009. But all apparently served either as chaplains or in specialty medical fields, a spokeswoman for the Army said. No combat soldiers had been given a pass.
After Singh had his hair and beard cut at West Point, he continued following Sikh teachings. He went to temple on Sunday. While on roadside bomb-clearing missions in Afghanistan, he ate only vegetarian versions of military field rations. But he said his faith demanded that he do more.
“A true Sikh is supposed to stand out, so he can defend those who cannot defend themselves,” he said. “I see that very much in line with the Army values.”
During leave before a new assignment this fall, he stopped shaving and filed for an accommodation with the help of a Sikh advocacy group. He received the accommodation, at least on a temporary basis.
“I hope this shows others that they can both serve their faith and serve their country,” he said.
The News Tribune contributed to this report.