The annual Turban Day, held last month in Times Square, New York City, celebrated the growing number of Sikh soldiers in the U.S. military. Around one hundred Sikhs who wear turbans and beards are currently estimated to serve in the U.S. Army and Air Force, Vice reports. At the event, a number of Sikh-American soldiers recounted their experiences of joining and serving in the armed forces, as well as encouraged young Sikh’s to enlist. “To serve in the U.S. Army with your religious beliefs, especially for the Sikh religion followers, is a moment of joy,” said event organizer Kawal Deep Singh.  

Shared values between Sikhism and the military

Army recruiting officer 1st Lt., Amarjeet Singh, spoke at Turban Day to highlight the overlapping philosophies of Sikhism and the military. "Growing up as a Sikh, the values that were instilled into me were about selflessness, service, dedication, discipline, and integrity, which is very much similar to what we were taught in the U.S Army," Singh said. "These align very well with each other, and that was my reason to join."

Indeed, Guru Hargobind (the sixth Guru) taught that military action has its place to protect the innocent and enact justice. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, also promoted military action in times when it's truly necessary. “When all efforts to restore peace prove useless and no words avail, Lawful is the flash of steel. It is right to draw the sword”, he said.

However, Singh did worry about whether he’d be accepted into the fold. “One of my biggest concerns was me keeping my identity as a Sikh and being able to wear my turban, and to have my unshorn beard, and still be able to serve my country,” he said. Yet, once the Army recruiters told him  about the recent policy changes that allow Sikhs to wear their beards and turbans, his worries were largely alleviated. 

Maintaining identity in the armed forces

For Singh, the turban is part of who he is. “Tying on the turban every morning is just like us doing PT in the Army,” he said. “It's part of our routine. Once we put on our turban, it just gives us more confidence, and it gives us a sense of pride to go to work and accomplish the day," he said.  

Moreover, although they’re a non-religious accessory, dog tags also hold personal meaning for Singh and other military members. Engraved with the wearer’s name, social security number, and religious affiliation, dog tags have been a practical form of identification in the military since 1906. But they also remind soldiers of their individuality and provide comfort during tough times. Since dog tags must be strong and resistant to corrosion, they’re usually made from materials like stainless steel or aluminum. These materials can withstand harsh conditions, so the tags always remain legible and in-tact.

The pursuit of religious freedom in the military 

“I have nothing but positive things to say about the military,” Lt. Col. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist in the U.S. Army Reserve, also said. However, it took Rattan four attempts to be finally accepted into the Army in 2009. It wasn’t so easy for Sikh’s back then, although positive changes were happening. “I was given accommodation at the time to be able to go through the basic training with my turban and beard, and I'm really very much thankful to the military for giving me that chance. It opened the doors for everybody else,” he said. “Now there are plenty of Sikh serving without any kind of questions asked”. There’s truly never been a better time for Sikhs to enlist.  

Young Sikhs interested in joining the Army should get in touch with a recruiter, Rattan also advised. “The doors have been opened; come serve in the Army, in the Air Force, even in the Navy and Marines as well too, as the doors are open,” he said. “Don’t be shy. Do what you feel you want to do. We believe in freedom, and this is one way of making sure that you and everybody around you—they have the freedom they deserve.”

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