The Story of One Soldier Challenging Military Uniforms

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh. In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard. (Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

The cornerstone of the military is discipline and conformity. The simplest example can be found in a soldier's uniform: Everyone dresses the same, everyone acts the same and everyone does the same—and for good reason.

But how important is appearance when it comes to the ability to serve?

That's the question Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh raised in New Jersey, put to the Army's top brass not long after he enlisted.

When the Army told him he would be required to give up the beard, knee-length hair and turban that symbolize his religion, he refused. Instead, he fought for the right to serve while still wearing the symbols that honor his religious tradition.

In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard.

Now, Major Kalsi is challenging the military to broaden that exception in order to make it possible for other would-be Sikh soldiers to serve in the U.S. military, too. He joins The Takeaway to discuss his efforts so far.

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Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh. In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard.

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh. In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard.

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh, is also an Army doctor. In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard.

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh, is also an Army doctor. In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard.

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi

Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh, is also an Army doctor. In 2009, the Army granted him a special exception—making him the first Sikh to win permission to serve while still wearing his turban and beard.


Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja and Cassie Jones


T.J. Raphael

Comments [22]

Patrick Barber from Texas

This man is in the AMERICAN Army, not the Indian Military, if he's going to live here then he needs to conform to OUR ways, not vice versa and if he doesn't like it, he's an officer, he can resign his commission any time and to the guy commenting about sikhs being IN our Military during the Civil War, i'd like the name of the unit and i'm going to call bull sh*t on that one.

Mar. 01 2015 02:34 AM
kjc402 from Ohio

Actually there precedent of a U.S. Sikh soldier wearing a turban in WWI.


Prior to the 1980s, the United States Armed Forces allowed the wearing of beards while in uniform. However, due to a change in regulations the U.S. armed forces stopped allowing for the wearing of beards in uniform, except for those who commenced their service in the military before 1986. As the beard is a requirement according to the Rehat Maryada, the current regulation, has created a regulatory barrier that has kept Sikhs from serving in the United States Armed Forces in large numbers since. Prior to this change in regulation, two Sikhs who served in the US military were Col. Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon and Col. G. B. Singh.

In fact there may have been Sikh turbans in the U.S. Army as far back as the Civil War.

Jan. 22 2014 03:42 PM

Most other religions do not have as strict grooming practices. This is America, we don't discriminate. I was in the army and we give up some rights but like any work place it tries to accommodate you. It cannot say no to your practice of religion or what not. I'm not religious myself, but some people are. They shouldn't have to choose between faith and service if they want to do both. I don't care if the guy next to me has a turban just as I don't care if the guy next to me is gay. If he does his job, that's fine with me. There are far bigger issues around. There are plenty of soldiers who just flat out suck at doing their job - I'm more worried about that. People who bitch and moan about this haven't been in service before. This is trivial to me, honestly. Bottom line is this, did they pass APFT? They stay qualified on weapons? Can they do their job? Except for the beard and turban his uniform is up to standard. I'm cool with it.

A good soldier is a good soldier. These guys aren't direct combat guys, they bring specialized skills with them, there are plenty of people who won't do it. Be glad there are those willing. Doctors, Nurses, PAs and techs make hell of a lot more in civilian world. This does affect the 'uniformity' of army uniform but opens up the possible to allow more people who want to serve to join and do so. Minorities typically shy away from military service, so this helps out a bit.

Nov. 20 2013 05:14 PM
zeeba from AR

What a bunch of straight up bullshit. It's been tiring for sometime now when people come to our country refusing to assimilate. It was the dream of our original immigrants that came into Ellis Island, to not only maintain their own culture, but to become full fledged Americans. Now we have vast members of religious groups who come to our country to escape torture and oppression, only to turn around and shout discrimination and attempt to bite the hand that feeds them. For this member of OUR armed forces to challenge the United States Military uniform is outrageous and it should have NEVER have been granted. Why should he get special treatment when our Christian service members are being discharged, sanctioned, and harassed for their faith? Further more, conformity requirements are an absolute part of our service member's discipline that mold them into the dedicated warriors they are. Fail or succeed on your own merit, but wear the uniform. Everyone should be appalled. And the smug look on his face needs to be jacked up and dispatched. This makes my piss boil.

Nov. 19 2013 02:22 AM
tom LI

Uh...Rastafarians...have a required Religious appearance and "sacramental" requirements...lets allow them to completely do as they please in that regards.

Sep. 26 2013 05:00 PM
Joe B Williams JR from Indiana

Really, the idea of uniformity was to set a standard and ensure that the ideas and the religions within the army did not detract from all Soldiers being treated equally. Allowing this religion the exception and the wearing of religious garb will set the new policies that ALL religions now have the RIGHT as someone said to be able to wear what they believe as a religious garment. That will set the stage for a complete transformation of the traditions and the idea of all are equal and the same. Might as well open the doors and let anyone from anywhere serve. Maybe under this idea of religious rights, uniforms will be thrown out and you could wear what you want. To think I spent 27 years and now here that for the first time this Sikh can set his idea of what he should be wearing. Don't forget that when he joined the military he knew what he had to wear and how he was going to be required to acknowledge as the authorized uniform.

Sep. 24 2013 04:21 PM
Jerrie Prater

I think letting Sikh members of the military wear their beards, turbans and other signs of their faith is a good idea. I also think that Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims should be able to wear beards and in the case of Ultra Orthodox side curls. Being in the military doesn't mean that you give up your faith. BTW I was raised in a military family.

Sep. 24 2013 02:29 PM
onemadarmymom from USA

This is ridiculous!!! The whole idea is to conform to the military standard. I just read an article about the military changing the uniforms to be all the same. All services wearing the same uniform. How will that officer conform to that. Our sons and daughters MUST comply and just because of his religious beliefs is no reason to allow him this freedom!!!!!!

Sep. 24 2013 01:49 PM
Rob from Fort Leavenworth, KS

This man stood up for his beliefs which go to the core of his being. He is what being in the Army is all about... the protection of rights given by our creator and protected in our Constitution. Those tenets of his belief system state that you will NOT cut your hair and WILL cover your head (turban)... there are three others in the Sikh religion. To disallow a segment of our society to serve in the Armed Forces for the sole purpose of his religion's beliefs... is not only wrong but it is unacceptable. I applaud his efforts in this matter. And, I believe it only strengthens our military.

Sep. 24 2013 08:00 AM
Shawn Anders

You know I have long given this topic a long thought, thru out my time in the Army. I have worked with and around many different branches and foreign militarys a lot of which wear beards. I don't thing this makes them any less affective as soldiers. We in the military put a lot of stock in uniformity but throw it out the window when it suits big army. I have heard lots of reasons but have seen very few. What about shaving profiles are they lesser soldiers I think not. But to be truthful there are larger issues in the military than beards and uniform changes for religulous reasons. And to Jerry that is the worst reason not to fallow an officer and I am ashamed to fight beside you but I will and have and many like you who have forgotten why we are here and what we do and why we do it. It is not for uniformity its for reasons larger than our self its for every one in this great country. So to say you will not fallow this mans leadership because of a beard you may want to rethink why you are in the military and re visit what we are told at the most basic level.

Sep. 24 2013 02:51 AM

I remember the Sikh soldiers, back when I first enlisted. Everyone that I met was SF and I learned about the soldier class they came from. They were all exemplary soldiers, beards and turbans immediately identified them as SF, even though they didn't wear the Green Beret.

I never got the chance to fight or train with them, but it would have been an honor. You won't find a more loyal battle buddy and you will never have to worry if he has your back, because he will always be beside you, behind you, and in front of you. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to be a member of an opposing force facing one.

I can accept case-by-case basis, but would rather see Sikh's back in full force.

Sep. 24 2013 12:35 AM
Dale from Georgia

I served in the 80s and had a Sikh assigned to our SF Group Intel and he was a great Soldier, take a hint from the Brits allowing Soldiers from Warrior cultures only makes us stronger. Don't drink the Coolaid from the Sergeants Major Academy folks...different is not bad...Green Berets had the same fight with Big Army when they were formed and look now, leading point in every hotspot in the world. Think outside the box use those critical thinking skills they stress so much in the Leadership schools!

Sep. 23 2013 10:48 PM
Lawrence Beerbower from Hoquiam, Wa

I served in the US Armed forces for 9 years and understand uniformity.
We all ware the same uniform it identifies us as part of a certain Branch of the service, a certain unit and so forth.
I do not believe in denying a person of different belief or ideology the right to serve, but then they also have the choice to conform.
Back in the early days the cutting of the facial and head hair was for Hygienic purposes. It was not to identify you as a member of the Armed forces.
okay so this gentle man in accordance to his belief has been granted an exception and been allowed to keep his beard and turban. This should be only allowed on a case by case instance and not just toss tradition and regulations out the window. This is an expression of his faith.

Sep. 23 2013 10:09 PM


Sep. 23 2013 09:32 PM

NONE of the neighborhood watch people I have known have ever 1)carried weapons, nor 2) walked alone.
Mr. Zimmerman had CHOICES that night. His choice was to prepare to kill.
He COULD have chosen to carry pepper spray or a taser, rather than a firearm. He could have chosen to follow the instructions of the police force operator and not approach. Finally, he could have chosen to "fight like a man," rather than to "sissy fight" with a weapon.
I am a single woman who walks frequently with my small, friendly dog. I carry my cell phone and pepper spray. I also know how to RUN from a threatening person, bite, kick, scream, run up to someone's house, and wiggle my way out of the clutches of an attacker. This is not hypothetical; it worked for me when I was sexually assaulted. . . . and I weighed 130 pounds!
Come on, Zimmerman.

Jul. 16 2013 02:18 PM
Tom from Portland

If we do not talk about the reason Mr. Zimmerman was carrying a gun, then we are not having a rational discussion. The fact is, young black men were targeting Mr. Zimmerman's neighborhood, and that needs to be talked about. This was a tragedy, not a racial attack. Mr. Zimmerman was reacting to crime being perpetrated by young men that fit Mr. Martin's description, and Mr. Zimmerman believed the myth that carrying a gun would protect his neighborhood.

Jul. 15 2013 12:17 PM
Alexandra O'Brien from Manhattan

Of course, this is "old hat" in the British army:

Jul. 12 2013 10:38 AM
Scotty Watson from Secaucus NJ

I used to live in Toronto Ontario where the police and the RCMP have designed uniforms for their Sikh officers. Google it. The military needs to get out in front of the issue and embrace inclusion. If they lead, rather than be pushed to change, they can have the best of both worlds... more officers from more a more diverse pool AND the unit cohesion of the uniform.

Jul. 11 2013 03:56 PM
Angel from Miami FL

When I squint my eyes it's the Minutemen of the American Revolution that I see every time. I know the march nowadays like the Redcoats did so long ago. But when I really "look" at them I see men intertwined not by the uniform or crew-cut but by the same belief that what we have here is worth protecting. Also, Major Kalsi looks kinda cool.

Jul. 11 2013 03:06 PM
Christopher C from st. louis

I really don't see the problems with religious exemptions to uniform as long as it doesn't interfere with their duties.

Jul. 11 2013 12:55 PM

I think that there should various changes in the military because there is a lot of incompetency and corruption in the high ranks there, but people who dress up to present their religion or culture should not be freely allowed to do so. I have too often seen people with very long beards or long hair and unkempt appearances and tattoos working in hospitals, or eating establishments or other places where people should be clean shaven, and look professional. I recently was in a hospital emergency room and saw a male registered nurse with extremely long dreadlocks and a beard and was apparently trying to present a ghetto style. I felt very uneasy being approached by this person who looked the same as the prisoners in the emergency room whom were handcuffed to their stretchers or wheelchairs. In fact there was a police officer who had very long dreadlocks under his police hat. There are places in which it should not be allowed to show off your juvenile tastes.
Of course people who wear turbans or have long beards for "religious purposes" are not outwardly the same as certain people who wear their pants hanging down while on the job so as to be "cool." But it does amount to the same thing. Your religion does not belong in a workplace where you have to interact with different people and there has to be " professional uniformity." SOmehow a person wearing religious garb will make the atmosphere as if s/he is trying to be outlandish with his or her culture or religious beliefs while others are neutral and only dress the way that is appropriate for a certain workplace. It seems to be another issue regarding the seperation of church and state. Sometimes it is improper to put a nativity scene on certain public places that may not be owned by a church. Of course it is more complicated than that but there should be a seperation of religion and the rest of society and people dressing so as to present their religion on the job when the particular workplace is not meant to present religious views or "images" should not be allowed.

It will probably mean that there will be people who want to come to the workplace dressed in Wiccan robes,etc. You just can't escape the fact that in American culture, there is already a certain social acceptance and merely wearing a crucifix necklace on the job is not the same as wearing a Turban or a Hijab or Keffiyeh and dishdash.
Furthermore someone who cannot keep his religion out of his work, may likely do things like refuse to give birth control information if he works in a pharmacy, or refuse to listen to a woman supervisor , etc.

Jul. 11 2013 10:11 AM

Have other soldiers asked to keep their facial hair? Do we let ANY male soldier have a beard and mustache if he so desires?

Jul. 11 2013 09:46 AM

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