The Right To Wear Beards And Turbans Is A Victory For More Than Sikhs

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Photo courtesy of Kamal Kalsi.

In 1675, Tegh Bahadur, the ninth spiritual master of the Sikhs and a brilliant military leader, was actively pushing back against the Mughal empire’s intolerant policies of forced religious conversion. After Hindus from the Kashmir region implored him for help, Tegh Bahadur sent the Moghul emperor, Aurangzeb, a challenge: “If you can convert me to Islam, then all of the Hindus in Kashmir will also convert to Islam. But if you can not convert me, then you must let them practice their religion in peace.”


The Mughals tortured Tegh Bahadur’s followers and killed them in order to compel him to convert. Ultimately, they beheaded Tegh Bahadur when he refused to give up his Sikh identity, and with that sacrifice the Kashmiri Hindus were spared forced religious conversion.

This is a story that Sikh children grow up listening to. It teaches us lessons of sacrifice, bravery, and social justice. It taught me to stand up for the practice of all religions.

Ever since 9/11, Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities that appear “Middle Eastern” have been targeted in hate crimes, workplace discrimination, and bullying. As a Sikh, I fought back against that hate and intolerance by working to fix discriminatory policies that institutionalize these divides. If one of the largest employers in the United States, our military, can discriminate against my religiously mandated turban and beard, then that gives cover to every employer to do the same.

Sikhs served honorably in the U.S. military for most of the 20th century, but in the early 1980s the military changed grooming and uniform regulations, essentially barring all Sikhs with turbans and beards from service. But it wasn’t just Sikhs who were pushed out. Muslims, Native Americans, Rastafarians, some Jewish sects, and several other religious minorities were also told that their religious observances would no longer be allowed in uniform.

Related: A Marine Says Her Religion Exempted Her From Certain Rules. Here’s Why She’s Wrong »

In 2009, I became the first Sikh in a generation to be granted a religious accommodation for my turban and beard by the Pentagon, and on Jan. 3, 2017, the Pentagon released Army Directive 2017-03. It is a policy that addresses the most commonly requested religious accommodations and is a monumental achievement for not only Army Sec. Eric Fanning but also for those Sikhs who had pushed this issue for nearly a decade.  

It is also a victory for America. We show our strength when we recognize the civil rights of small minorities. And when we do, we also gain in our fight with our enemies. ISIS tolerates no dissent, no disagreement, no difference. Our acceptance brings new people to our side, just as ISIS’ intolerance pushes many away.

The new directive allows brigade-level accommodation approval; that is, religious accommodations will no longer clutter desks at the office of the deputy chief of staff for personnel at the Pentagon. Once the religious accommodations have been made, they will continue throughout the soldiers’ careers. They can not be revoked or modified unless authorized by the service secretary or his/her designee. These soldiers can change duty stations and deploy, all without having to reapply for their religious waivers.

The directive also sets forth changes to AR 670-1 that specifically establish guidelines for the wear of turban, beard and hijabs in uniform. And just in case I wanted to wear my pink turban in uniform, the policy change states that the turban and hijab must be of subdued color or pattern that matches the camouflage of the uniform. All soldiers must still be able to wear a helmet and other “protective headgear.” Personally, I have never had any issue establishing a seal with a protective mask even with my turban and beard. The directive acknowledges that there are powered protective mask systems that our military currently uses which will form a good seal for all soldiers with facial hair. Furthermore, the Army will look to acquire and develop more protective masks that will function with facial hair.

This makes sense. Utilizing the Pentagon to grant individual religious accommodations is expensive, wasteful, and just plain silly. I want the Pentagon to focus on important issues like improving military transition, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, sexual assault, and cyber attacks.

Sikhs have been fighting against violent extremism and religious intolerance for centuries. A good friend of mine, Lt. Col. Claude Brittain, served as a Pentagon chaplain before he passed away last year. He always supported our efforts to help open doors for religious minorities. Bluntly, I asked him one day why he continues to stick his neck out for us. He told me that in order for him to be a good Christian, he felt compelled to stand up for Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others. I shared the story of Tegh Bahadur with him and he teared up.

This is how we counter threats like ISIS. ISIS doesn’t believe in diversity or religious freedom. That’s their weakness and we have to learn to exploit it if we’re to have any chance of defeating their underlying ideology. You don’t have to go back too far in history to see that the Nazis were way more “uniform” than we were, and that’s why we fought them. We can fight wars with bullets and tanks, but it’s our American ideals that will ultimately win the day. America’s military should look like the people it serves.

(U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith)

Three U.S. service members received non-life-threatening injuries after being fired on Monday by an Afghan police officer, a U.S. official confirmed.

The troops were part of a convoy in Kandahar province that came under attack by a member of the Afghan Civil Order Police, a spokesperson for Operation Resolute Support said on Monday.

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

The top leaders of a Japan-based Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet squadron were fired after an investigation into a deadly mid-air collision last December found that poor training and an "unprofessional command climate" contributed to the crash that left six Marines dead, officials announced on Monday.

Five Marines aboard a KC-130J Super Hercules and one Marine onboard an F/A-18D Hornet were killed in the Dec. 6, 2018 collision that took place about 200 miles off the Japanese coast. Another Marine aviator who was in the Hornet survived.

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A former Army soldier was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Thursday for stealing weapons from Fort Bliss, along with other charges.

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(U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Corey Hook)

Editor's Note: This article by Richard Sisk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released an alarming report Friday showing that at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, with little sign that the crisis is abating despite suicide prevention being the VA's top priority.

Although the total population of veterans declined by 18% during that span of years, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually, according to the VA's 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

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