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Sikh Army Captain Graduates: Tejdeep Singh Rattan Is First Sikh US Army Officer In Decades

By MICHELLE ROBERTS   03/22/10 09:33 PM ET EDT  AP

SAN ANTONIO -- Amid lines of soldiers, one after the other in standard-issue fatigues and combat boots, was one in a turban and full beard on Monday – the first Sikh in a generation allowed to complete U.S. Army officer basic training without sacrificing the articles of his faith.

Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a 31-year-old dentist, graduated Monday at Fort Sam Houston after the Army made an exemption to a uniform policy that has effectively prevented Sikhs from enlisting since 1984.

"I'm feeling very humbled. I'm a soldier," he said, grinning after the ceremony as other members of the Sikh community milled about nearby. "This has been my dream."

Rattan had to get a waiver from the Army to be allowed to serve without sacrificing the unshorn hair mandated by his faith. An immigrant from India who arrived in New York as a teenager, Rattan said it was important for him to serve a country that has given him so many opportunities.

The Army in 1984 eliminated an exemption that had previously allowed Sikhs to maintain their articles of faith while serving, but officials can issue individual waivers to the uniform policy after considering the effects on safety and discipline, said Army spokesman George Wright. Only a handful of such individual religious exemptions are ever granted.

Rattan and Dr. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who will attend basic training this summer after completing an emergency medicine fellowship, are the first Sikhs to receive exemptions in more than 25 years.

Rattan and Kalsi both offer health care skills that are in high demand in an Army stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

1st Sgt. Jeffrey DeGarmo said he made sure the officers-in-training in his unit understood that Rattan wasn't a foreign national and had received the Army's permission to maintain his beard and turban. Once the other soldiers understood that, there were no issues, he said.

"It went pretty well," DeGarmo said. "I think he did an outstanding job adjusting."

For Sikhs, the unshorn hair wrapped in a turban and beard are required to keep adherents in the natural state in which God made them, said Amardeep Singh, director of the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group that helped Rattan and Kalsi push for Army admittance.

During training, Rattan wore a helmet over the small turban, which he doesn't remove, and was able to successfully create a seal with his gas mask despite the beard, resolving the Army's safety concerns, said Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition's legal director.

Rattan worked with an Army tailor to create a flash, the insignia patch worn on soldiers' berets, that could be affixed to his black turban, she said.

Singh said allowing Sikh adherents to serve in the Army is an important part of ensuring they are an integral part of American life. He said it also could counter prejudice.

"If government can say to someone 'You can't serve, not for any reason that has to do with your abilities,' that sends the wrong message," he said. "We don't want to be perpetual outsiders."

The Sikh community has a long tradition of military service in India, from where most adherents originally emigrated, and in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada.

Sikhs represent 2 percent of India's population but make up about 30 percent of that country's army officers, Singh said.

An estimated 300,000 Sikhs live in the United States.

Before the Army's regulation change in 1984, Sikhs served in the U.S. military during every major armed conflict going back to World War I. Those who joined before the change were allowed to serve with their beards and turbans, but the policy effectively prevented new enlistment of Sikhs, Kaur said.

She said her group will continue to push for a change in Army policy.

"We're still working toward a day when Sikhs don't have to check their faith at the door," she said.

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  • Mata Nanaki (1464-1518)

    The First Sikh Born in Chahal village (now Lahore, Pakistan), Mata Nanaki loved and nurtured her younger brother Nanak. In 1469, Nanak experienced a divine vision as a young man and became the first Guru or "teacher" of what is now the Sikh faith. Mata Nanaki was the first to follow him and should be celebrated as the first Sikh, which literally means "disciple" or "seeker of truth."

  • Mata Khivi (1506-1582)

    The First to Serve Langar Mata Khivi followed Guru Nanak and prepared food for all who came to hear the Guru's spiritual discourse. When her husband became the second Sikh guru, Guru Angad, she presided over <em>langar</em>, a free and open kitchen, serving food to rich and poor of all castes and backgrounds. Today, every Sikh <em>gurdwara</em> in the world serves <em>langar</em> to the community.

  • Mai Bhago (Late 1600s - Early 1700s)

    The Fearless Warrior-Saint Born in Jhabal village (now Amritsar, Punjab in India), Mai Bhago grew up in a time when the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, fought to defend Sikhs against Mughal forces and hill chiefs. During a great siege in 1705, Mai Bhago rallied 40 deserters and led them into battle herself, sword in hand. They died fighting and became known as the Chali Mukte, the Forty Liberated Ones. Afterward, Mai Bhago became the Guru's bodyguard, donning a turban and cross-dressing in male warrior attire. Today, she is revered as a saint.

  • Rani Sada Kaur (1762-1832)

    The First Woman Commander-in-Chief Rani Sada Kaur became a young widow when her husband was killed in a battle among Punjabi chiefdoms. She used the moment to transform herself into a woman-warrior, donning a high turban and weaponry. She commanded battles and laid the foundation for the Sikh empire, which spanned the Punjab from 1799 to 1849. She closely advised her son-in-law as he became the first Maharaja of the new empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

  • Maharani Jind Kaur (1817-1863)

    The First Female Freedom Fighter Married to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Jind Kaur was Maharani of the Sikh empire -- and the first female freedom fighter in the struggle to oust the British from India. After Ranjit Singh's death, the British annexed the Punjab through bribery and battle. Rani Jinda Kaur's revolutionary speeches and writings rattled the British who imprisoned her in Punjab, Nepal, Calcutta and finally, England, where she died in 1863 at the age of 46. She is credited for sowing the seeds of India's struggle for independence.

  • Amrita Pritam (1919 - 2005)

    The Great Poetess The leading 20th century poet of the Punjabi language, Amrita Pritam is considered the Sikh community's unsung heroine. She is the first prominent woman Punjabi poet, novelist, and essayist, equally loved on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. With a career spanning six decades, Amrita Pritam produced more than 100 books. She represents the rise of Sikh women in the humanities -- writers, artists, filmmakers, and scholars.

  • Dr. Inderjit Kaur (1942 - )

    The Fierce Social Worker A doctor by training, Inderjit Kaur is the President of the <em>Pingalwara</em> Charitable Society in Amritsar, Punjab in India -- a famous home open to the poor, handicapped, diseased, and mentally ill. Since 1992, she has carried the legacy of its founder Bhagat Puran Singh with her own bold leadership. She stands in for countless Sikh women -- doctors, nurses, health-care advocates, volunteers -- who care for the sick and poor.

  • Prakash Kaur (1951 - )

    The Champion for Girls In a state infamous for female infanticide, Prakash Kaur runs a house in Jalandhar, Punjab for 60 abandoned girls. She was abandoned herself -- found a few hours old in a drain. Since 1993, she has rescued and raised unwanted and unclaimed newborn girls. She represents the many Sikh women fighting for women and girls against abandonment, domestic violence, sexual assault, and forced marriage.

  • Amrit Singh (1969 - )

    The Civil Rights Lawyer A formidable civil rights lawyer, Amrit Singh was one of the fiercest U.S. critics of the torture and abuse of prisoners under the Bush Administration. As an ACLU attorney, she litigated cases on torture, indefinite detention, and post-9/11 discrimination. She now serves at the Open Society Justice Initiative. Her father is the 13th and current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. Amrit Singh represents a new generation of Sikh women lawyers, wielding the law as sword and shield in the battlefield.

  • Dr. Anarkali Kaur Honaryar (1984 - )

    The Senator Arnkali Kaur is a human rights advocate and Senator in Afghanistan. As one of 3,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, she fights for the civil rights of minorities and women. When the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, she joined the Grand Council, Loya Jirga, to elect the interim government, and then helped draft the country's new constitution. She serves as the first non-Muslim woman member in the lower house of parliament. In 2009, at 25 years old, she was voted "Person of the Year" by Radio Free Europe's Afghan chapter, becoming a household name in Kabul. A modern-day "Mai Bhago," Arnakali Kaur represents the rise of brave modern-day Sikh women warriors.

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Filed by T.J. Ortenzi  |