Freedom. It is what the United States of America has built its foundation upon. It is what galvanizes this land of the free and home of the brave into action against tyranny, oppression, and any threat against liberty.
Many men and women of the United States have dedicated their lives to service of their country, but what happens when a soldier is not free to practice their own beliefs when serving their country? How do they cope with having to choose between honoring their personal values and those of their country? Captain Simrateal Singh of the United States Army, a devoted Sikh, and a cousin of Randolph-Macon Academy alumna Roop Atwal ’15, knows the struggle well.
The monotheistic religion of Sikhism preaches the values of equality and leading a life of exemplary deeds in order to merge with God. A Sikh devotes them self to a code of conduct and conventions which include their physical articles of faith. The toting of long hair, covered by a turban, and a beard are the ones most apparent. The preservation of these articles would prove to be difficult if one wishes to serve in the armed forces of the United States of America.
In order to maintain US military standards, a soldier must respect certain regulations such as a shaved faced and short hair, which is in direct conflict with the conventions of Sikhism. When Captain Singh first arrived at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, he was young, naïve, and convinced he could talk the academy into letting him keep his beard and long hair. He was wrong.
“The first couple of weeks at West Point is a grueling experience, but the most challenging part of those weeks was looking in the mirror and shaving my face every morning,” said Captain Singh. “I promised myself that one day I would be able to tote my military uniform along with my Sikh uniform.” That day finally came when he was invited to attend an event at The Pentagon celebrating the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi.
Captain Singh met two other Sikh soldiers who were wearing their turbans and beards. They told him to contact the Sikh Coalition and ask for their assistance in the accommodation process. Once that process began Captain Singh was concerned with what it might do to his career. What would his peers and superiors think? “I got halfway through explaining it to my commanding officer when she said, ‘Don’t worry, Captain. I have your back.’ The amount of support I received was incredible,” said Captain Singh.
He did not receive any negative feedback for his pursuit and acquisition of accommodation as a Sikh in the US Army. On the contrary, many folks reached out to him and expressed their respect and support for what he was doing. “At the end of the day, soldiers don’t care what their teammates look like or what religion they practice,” said Captain Singh. “All they care about is whether or not the person next to them has their back.”