Since enrolling in an ROTC program, Jaspreet Singh Gill said one of the hardest parts has been juggling his long mornings of training with his chemistry homework. But his unwavering determination to be in the Army made it manageable.
A Sikh, Gill even started wearing a sports turban — a Patka — to cut down the time it took in the morning to tie a traditional wrap.
The first time he really questioned his desire to join the military came after he researched the policy that requires soldiers to cut their hair and stick to a specific uniform.
"The purpose of long hair and an untrimmed beard for Sikhs is a spiritual reminder as to who we are, and to an extent, not to alter our body for vanity sake," Gill said. "We consider that we cannot sculpt our own bodies better than God can, which is blasphemous to an extent."
Complying with the policy would definitely be a problem for him.
Born in the Bay Area, Gill, 18, moved to Yuba-Sutter at a young age with his family.
He spent his formative years attending Franklin Elementary School and learning to play the violin before commuting to Sacramento Country Day School for his high school years.
"It was great. I love the small-town vibe," Gill said. "The people are great, there is a great Sikh community. There is a lot of cultural understanding. It's a nice blend of cultures. It was a really fun time growing up in Yuba City."
After graduating from high school a year early, Gill enrolled at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. He signed up for the ROTC program as a freshman while also majoring in chemistry.
He's had an interest in joining the Army for as long as he can remember. He said the biggest reason for joining was to serve his country and protect friends and family. One phrase he referred to frequently, and one of the pillars of the Sikh religion, is "social justice."
"According to Sikhism, as long as there is injustice in the world, the Sikh's job is not complete," Gill said. "So that idea inspired me to join the Army."
He said Sikhs have had a military culture that dates back to the 17th century, during a time when those who practiced the religion were persecuted for their beliefs. He said this ideal is the reason many Sikhs carry a knife or a dagger with them at all times — one of five religious symbols.
"Sikhism — we are a warrior-class people," Gill said. "If you listen to some of our stories, most of our existence has been fighting for our survival. As a result, we have developed militaristic traditions."
Gill said his parents were surprised at first when he told them he wanted to join the Army. They tried to persuade him to choose another path, but after he expressed to them why he wanted to join they supported his decision.
For the past several years, the Army has allowed those looking to join its ranks the opportunity to request for religious accommodations. Before that, many Sikhs were turned away from the Army because of their religious symbols. Gill attributed the Sikh Coalition with helping bring about the change in language of the Army's policy and allowing for case-by-case considerations.
Gill decided to go forward with his dream of being in the Army and applied for accommodations.
Now in his sophomore year, Gill was granted his request by the Army, but his accommodation was unique in that he was the first Sikh to not have to seek litigation in the process. He was granted the religious accommodations on July 14.
He was surprised at how quickly his application was accepted.
"I was one of the quickest cases," Gill said. "It usually takes a year once you submit a packet that states your reasons for religious accommodations and why it would benefit the army, and how you are going to control unit-cohesion and moral."
After submitting the packet, an individual must receive a seal, or a commanding officer's recommendation, before being interviewed by a chaplain and upper-echelon officers.
"I was interviewed by a couple people, high-ranking officers," Gill said. "They were supportive about doing it for a good cause."
Support for Gill
In addition to the support he received from the high-ranking officers, Congressman John Garamendi wrote a letter of recommendation that demonstrated his support for Gill.
Gill said Garamendi didn't have any questions for him before writing his letter. He believes this was a huge factor in helping him receive the religious accommodation without seeking litigation.
On Sept. 1, Gill had his semester brief where he was able to put on his Army uniform for the first time. He said everybody at the event was supportive, with some even wanting to take a picture with him. Gill has also received support from his friends and fellow cadets congratulating him after the news broke that he was the first Sikh to receive an accommodation without seeking litigation.
"I was expecting that there would be some resistance, maybe within fellow cadets," Gill said. "I thought there might be that one guy who is against breaking uniformity, and surprisingly I haven't had one single issue with anyone and that was a pleasant surprise."
Gill is hoping his story inspires other Sikhs wanting to serve in the military to join and apply for a religious accommodation.
"Once we see a larger show and have more representation, hopefully one day this religious accommodation process is no longer seen as necessary and we have that day were Sikhs can walk into a recruiter's office and have no additional obligations in applying," Gill said.