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.