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In 2015, Kanwar Singh saw an opening. He would approach the secretary of defense at a public event in Cambridge and get him on the record about whether Sikhs ought to be allowed to serve in the military with turbans and beards.
Shaking with nerves, Singh approached the microphone in a camouflage turban.
"I want to understand," the young man from Waltham asked. "What can we do to ensure anyone who's passionate and patriotic can serve without them having to give up on their religious beliefs?"
The audience erupted in applause.
"I appreciate your patriotism, and I appreciate what you're doing," then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter responded. "And I appreciate your faith too."
Singh's gambit paid off. In full public view, the top man at the Pentagon expressed support for Sikhs who want to enlist. Carter even noted that his counterpart in Canada — Harjit Singh Sajjan, sworn in just weeks earlier — was an observant Sikh.
"Mission effectiveness depends upon us having access to the largest possible pool of Americans because this is an all-volunteer force," Carter said.
It was a victory, but Singh still couldn't serve.
'Not Willing To Give Up'
Two years later, at a Sunday service at a temple in an industrial part of Everett, Singh invites his visitors to eat with him sitting on the floor. It's part of the Sikh custom of lungar.
"Regardless of where you come from, what your socioeconomic background is — your caste, creed, color, gender — it doesn't matter," Singh says in flawless English, with an Indian accent. "We're all equal in the eyes of God. And the way we build that forward is by sitting down and sharing a meal on the floor."
Singh is 6 foot 2 inches and stands straight as a tree. He's 27 years old, and as an observant Sikh, he keeps a beard and wears his long hair wrapped in a cotton turban. For Sikhs, the hair is a sacred extension of the body, one element of the Sikh uniform, and it's not to be cut.
Sikh theology also places great value on military service, urging adherents to defend not only themselves on the battlefield, but also people of other cultures. Inspired by the National Guard's response to the Boston Marathon bombings, Singh wanted to join.
His grandfather and great-grandfather had served in a Sikh regiment of the British military, and they did it without sacrificing their hair. But grooming standards are strict in the U.S. Army — the soldier's uniform was incompatible with the Sikh's uniform -- and they essentially prohibited Sikhs and other religious minorities from serving.
That's unless they were willing to remove their articles of faith. Singh says he would rather die than break with family tradition.
"We've probably maintained the Sikh articles of faith, which is the unshorn hair, beard and turban, [hair comb, underpants, bracelet and knife] … we've probably maintained those for at least 300 years," he says. "So this was something I was not willing to give up on. But at the same time, I still wanted to serve my country."
"This was something I was not willing to give up on. But at the same time, I still wanted to serve my country."Kanwar Singh
For that, however, Singh needed a religious accommodation, and the Army seemed to be dragging its heels.
Sikhs In The Military
Worldwide, Sikhs number approximately 25 million, the vast majority residing in the Indian state of Punjab. Estimates on the number of Sikhs in the U.S. vary, but on the high end, the country is home to as many as a half million.
The first known Sikh to serve was Bhagat Singh Thind, who joined in 1918, according to an Army spokesman. Army regulations at this time allowed soldiers to have beards. But in the early 1980s, the military began to crack down on its uniform and grooming standards.
However, between 2009 and 2011, six Sikh, Jewish and Muslim soldiers received temporary accommodations, four being medical officers, the others a chaplain and a medic. All six received long-term accommodations in 2013, the spokesman said in an email.
Singh and two other Sikhs aspiring to be American soldiers sued the Pentagon. The suit accused the Army of "blatant religious discrimination."
Singh's second gambit also paid off. "Within a week the Army backtracked, issued me and two other Sikh soldiers a religious accommodation, which was temporary," he said. "But I thought, 'Hey, that's progress.' " So they withdrew the complaint.
But he was disappointed in not having received a permanent accommodation. That changed earlier this year when the Army issued a memo that opened up the process for religious accommodations — not just for soldiers who wear beards and turbans — but other articles of faith including hijabs, jewelry and dreadlocks.
It's unclear whether Singh's lawsuit led the Army to change its rules. In a statement, Army spokesman Hank Minitrez said that the policy change was based on the successful examples of soldiers serving at the time with religious accommodations.
"This directive also offers the opportunity for the Army to expand the eligibility of people available to enlist, as there was a section of the population who previously were unavailable due to religious accommodation issues," Minitrez said. "This change opens the door for the Army to seek talents and skills in more segments of the population."
'We're Glad To Have You'
As a speaker of Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu — all considered "critical languages" by the Pentagon — Singh had something to contribute.
Days after the new Army rule went into effect, Singh received a letter informing him that he'd been granted a permanent religious accommodation.
Ash Carter returned to the Harvard Kennedy School in March — and Officer Candidate Kanwar Singh was there once again.
"As you may remember we had last met in December 2015," Singh told Carter, who was announcing his return to the school. "Back then I was not able to serve in our nation's military. ... I just want to commend you for all you've done to publicly support religious freedoms."
The room erupted in applause. "We're glad to have you," Carter said.
Back at the Sikh temple in Everett, Jasbir Singh is beaming. After years of struggling to get into the Massachusetts National Guard, his son Kanwar Singh is finally a soldier.
"We are called a martial race, and we are proud of serving in the Army," he said. "My father and my grandfather also served in the British Army, so I am happy that Kanwar Singh has joined the Army. It's a great feeling."
On Friday, April 28, Kanwar Singh heads to the Pentagon to participate in a ceremony to celebrate Vaisakhi — the Sikh new year — with a half dozen other Sikh soldiers who have received religious accommodations.
Now that observant Sikhs can serve in the Army, they say the next step is for the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps and Coast Guard to allow the same. And if the branches don't act first, Kanwar Singh says he'll be expecting another young Sikh to stand up like he did.
This segment aired on April 28, 2017.
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