Air Force OKs beards, turbans, and hijabs worn for religious reasons

A1C Sunjit Rathour was one of the first Sikh Airman to receive religious accommodation for growing a beard and wearing a turban while in uniform. Rathour graduated Security Forces technical training on September 26th, 2019. (Air Force photo/ Alexander Good)

The Air Force on Friday became the second branch of the U.S. military to approve the wearing of beards, turbans, hijabs, under-turbans/patkas, unshorn hair and other indoor/outdoor head coverings for religious reasons.

According to the updated regulation, "Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel," the Air Force allows all such apparel and beards as long as the airmen wearing them make it through a religious accommodation waiver process, that they appear "neat and conservative," and that the apparel and beards don't interfere with personal safety.

"Requests should normally be recommended for approval unless approval would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline," the Air Force wrote. "When requests are precluded by military necessity, commanders and supervisors should seek reasonable alternatives."

The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group which works on behalf of Sikhs and other religious minorities in the military, praised the new regulation.

"No Sikh American should have to choose between their religious beliefs and their career ambitions," said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Staff Attorney. "Sikhs have served honorably and capably in the U.S. Armed Forces and other militaries around the world, and while we are eager for a blanket proclamation that all observant Sikh Americans can serve in every branch of the military without seeking accommodations, this policy clarification is a great step forward towards ensuring equality of opportunity and religious freedom in the Air Force."

The regulation follows years of individual airmen and other service members receiving waivers for religious beards and apparel. In 2018, Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan became the first Muslim airman to receive a religious accommodation beard waiver. Last year, Capt. Maysaa Ouza became the first Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps officer to wear hijab.

Also in 2019, Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa became the first Sikh airman to receive an accommodation for a turban, beard and unshorn hair, and two Norse Heathen airmen were also allowed to grow beards.

Friday's regulation formalizes such waivers into a multi-step review process. As part of the process, an airman must describe the religious basis for — and include a comment on the sincerity of — the request. A chaplain must then interview the requesting airman and submit a recommendation to the wing chaplain (or the unit's equivalent of a wing chaplain).

A staff judge advocate must also review the request package. It is is up to the wing commander (or the unit's equivalent of such a commander) to make the final decision.

Based on the Air Force regulation, a disapproval should be based "on real (not theoretical) compelling government interest" (i.e. safety) or when precluded by a "compelling" (i.e., especially important) governmental and/or Air Force interest.

As described in sample memos included in the regulation, safety concerns might include wearing a gas mask or going within 25 feet of an operating aircraft. In such cases, an airman's command could order an immediate removal of the turban, hijab or facial hair (although it's not clear how much time an airman would have to shave).

There are plenty of smaller regulations detailing how religious beards and apparel should look in order to appear "neat and conservative," the Air Force writes. For example, hijabs must be closely fitted to the contours of the airman's head and neck, tucked under the uniform top, and cannot cover the airman's eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth or chin.

Another example of "neat and conservative" is color. According to the regulation, turbans, hijabs, under-turbans or other headwear must be plain, dark blue, black, and free of designs or markings except when matching with the airman's camouflage uniform.

Airmen assigned to units wearing a beret of any color may wear an appropriately-colored head covering as directed by the unit commander, one sample memo explains.

The same "neat and conservative" approach applies to beards, which must not exceed two inches when measured from the bottom of the chin, the regulations states. Beard hair longer than two inches must be rolled and/or tied to achieve the required length. Airmen can use styling products on their beards, but petroleum-based products are not allowed while wearing a protective mask.

For those wondering, the regulation says that "a mustache worn with a beard may extend sideways beyond the corners of the mouth to connect with the beard, but must be trimmed or groomed to not cover the upper lip."

The Air Force is first in many things, but in this case the branch came in second to the Army, which in 2017 became the first military branch to grant religious exemptions for beards, turbans and hijabs. The Sikh Coalition said the Air Force regulation closely resembles the Army's. The Coalition said both changes were influenced by a years-long advocacy and litigation campaign by the Coalition and its pro bono co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery.

Army recruiters hold a swearing-in ceremony for over 40 of Arkansas' Future Soldiers at the Arkansas State Capital Building. (U.S. Army/Amber Osei)

Though the Army has yet to actually set an official recruiting goal for this year, leaders are confident they're going to bring in more soldiers than last year.

Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, told reporters on Wednesday that the Army was currently 2,226 contracts ahead of where it was in 2019.

"I will just tell you that this time last year we were in the red, and now we're in the green which is — the momentum's there and we see it continuing throughout the end of the year," Muth said, adding that the service hit recruiting numbers in February that haven't been hit during that month since 2014.

Read More
A soldier reunites with his daughter at Fort Bragg, N.C. after returning from the Middle East. The 82nd Airborne Division's Immediate Response Force had been deployed since New Years Eve. Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (U.S. Army via Associated Press)

Some Fort Bragg paratroopers who left for the Middle East on a no-notice deployment last month came home Thursday.

About 3,500 soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team were sent to Kuwait beginning Jan. 1 as tensions were rising in the region. The first soldiers were in the air within 18 hours of being told to go.

Read More
In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL/WASHINGTON/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement on Feb. 29 at the end of a week long period of violence reduction in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban said on Friday.

Read More
A developmental, early variant of the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) autonomously conducts maneuvers on the Elizabeth River during its demonstration during Citadel Shield-Solid Curtain 2020 at Naval Station Norfolk on Feb. 12, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rebekah M. Rinckey)

Large cargo ships, small fishing boats and other watercraft sail safely past Naval Station Norfolk every day, but there's always a possibility that terrorists could use any one of them to attack the world's largest naval base.

While Navy security keeps a close eye on every vessel that passes, there's an inherent risk for the sailors aboard small patrol boats who are tasked with helping keep aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers on base safe from waterborne attacks.

So the Navy experimented Wednesday to test whether an unmanned vessel could stop a small boat threatening the base from the Elizabeth River.

Read More
(Nancy Turner via Raleigh News & Observer)

Nancy Turner's modern version of keeping a candle in the window while her soldier son is away is a string of electric lights on the front porch that burn red, white and blue.

But where Turner sees patriotism and support for the troops, her Garner homeowners association sees a covenant violation and a potential $50-per-day fine.

Turner was surprised to receive a threatening email last week after an employee from Sentry Management, which manages the Sheldon Place HOA, spotted the illegal illumination during a neighborhood patrol.

"I honestly had no idea it would be a problem," Turner said.

The HOA did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent as a message through its Facebook page.

Read More