Photo: Lieutenant Colonel Kamal Singh Kalsi
A group of young Sikhs enlisting in the US Army has been given a special dispensation to wear their turbans and beards during basic combat training.
There are many practicing Sikhs who serve in the Army, but Manav Sodhi will be the first high school student to be given the go-ahead to enlist as a Sikh, according to a report on Military.com.
Sodhi, who is a student at Kings Park High School in New York, said he was inspired to join the army after meeting the president of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), Lieutenant Colonel Kamal Singh Kalsi, at an event recently
"That was an amazing day for me because I realized then that I can freely practice my religion and serve my country too," he said.
"I wanted to join the Army ever since I was a kid. My great grandfather served in the Army, and I wanted to follow his footsteps," Sodhi, who will join at least 13 others of his faith and age in starting military service, was quoted as saying in newsreports.
In 2009, Kalsi became the first person to be allowed to wear his turban and beard and of the decision to allow the waiver for Sikhs enlisting in the military, he said: "It shows progress.”
Wearing a beard and turban is "critical because it is really part of our identity as Sikhs," he said.
Sikhs have served in the US military dating back to World War One and more than 80,000 Sikh soldiers died serving alongside allied forces in both World Wars. But in the 1980s, then-President Reagan passed an executive order calling for all troops to look uniform, meaning that facial hair and religious headwear were forbidden, CBS News reported.
However, the turban and beard waivers do not apply to the other armed services, which is something SAVA is lobbying to change.
"Right now, our focus is to help open doors in the other branches of service," Kalsi said.