After Legal Battles, Sikh Graduates Marine Corps Boot Camp with Beard, Turban
2023/08/15

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In a historic legal win for religious freedom in the military, a member of the Sikh community graduated from recruit training Friday while wearing articles of faith intrinsic to the South Asian religion.

Pfc. Jaskirat Singh stood at attention -- while wearing a turban, beard and unshorn hair -- as he listened to the national anthem play on the parade deck at . For Singh, the day was not only the culmination of three months of hard training, but nearly two years of legal tumult that allowed him to don traditional Sikh wear at boot camp.

He is likely the first enlisted Marine to graduate from recruit training while wearing articles of faith intrinsic to the Sikh tradition, specifically a beard and turban, according to the Sikh Coalition which, along with other advocates, has helped him and more than 50 Sikh Americans secure military accommodations for religious wear.

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"I am honored to serve my country in the Marine Corps, and proud that I was able to do so while respecting my Sikh faith," Singh said in a press release from the Sikh Coalition. "I hope that my graduation sends a clear message to other young Sikhs who are considering military service: Your faith does not have to be a barrier to any career."

Singh graduated as an 0311 military occupational specialty, or infantryman.

His accomplishment represents an important step in years-long negotiations between the Sikh Coalition and the Marine Corps, which have butted legal heads since at least November 2021 over the accommodations, according to the press release.

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Those negotiations reached a fever pitch in April of last year when Singh and three other plaintiffs sued the U.S. government after the Marine Corps offered an accommodation that would require Sikhs to surrender their turbans and beards while at boot camp.

Eventually, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Singh a preliminary injunction and ruled that the Marine Corps must allow Sikhs to wear their hair and beards in uniform, including at recruit training. Singh shipped off for boot camp in May 2023.

The legal win was only partial, however, and advocates are continuing to push for broader accommodations.

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Singh and another Sikh Coalition client, Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, are prohibited from wearing unshorn beards when deployed to areas where they would receive hostile fire or imminent danger -- in other words, combat zones.

"This presents an inherent limit on any Marine's career, given how much of the world such a prohibition covers and the forward-deployed nature of the branch," Giselle Klapper, the Sikh Coalition deputy legal director, told Military.com on Friday. "We will continue working to ensure that both of these men and others who come after them have full equality of opportunity.

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This prohibition represents a painful thorn for Sikhs who serve in the military, especially for Marines. In 2011, Marine Cpl. Gurpreet Singh was killed in action while serving in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was made to shave his beard and cut his hair on that , and died without being able to wear important articles of faith.

"I remember talks with him when we were deployed downrange in Afghanistan," Army Lt. Col. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, founder of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance and the first Sikh military officer to be awarded an accommodation by the Defense Department in 2009.

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