For the first time ever, the US Air Force has given a Sikh airman permission to maintain a turban and beard during his time in active service.
Airman Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, a crew chief at the McChord Air Force Base near Lakewood, was granted religious accommodation to wear his items of faith – which also includes unshorn hair – in March after he filed a request in coordination with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA).
The request took nearly six months to conclude, after a ‘back and forth with the paperwork, pushing the pentagon to do the right thing,’ said Col. Kamal Kalsi of SAVA.
‘I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,’ an elated Bajwa declared. ‘Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.’
Bajwa, a ground mechanic, who joined the Air Force in 2017, is and the first airman ever to be issued such permissions.
When he first began serving, Bajwa was unable to follow Sikh practice because of the military branch’s strict grooming and dress codes.
In a statement, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund say they waited to announce the accommodation so Bajwa could grow out his beard and figure out who to wear his turban with his uniform.
However, US Air Force spokesperson Major Nicholas Mercurio said all religious accommodations will continue to be considered on a case-by-case basis, despite Bajwa’s unprecedented ruling.
The policy will not be implemented branch-wide, unless there significant reforms are made to USAF protocols.
In 2016, decorated American-Sikh Army Captain Simratpal Singh received a long-term religious accommodation from the US Army to serve with long-hair, a beard and turban.
The following year, the Army updated its regulations directing commanders to allow all accommodations for observant Sikhs.
Currently, it appears the Air Force has no recognized observant Sikh pilots serving among its ranks.
However, should that change, the outcome of Bajwa’s appeal could set an expensive precedent for the Air Force moving forward.
Should a pilot be required to wear a gas mask or oxygen mask during a mission, a large beard would likely break the mask’s seal, leaving the airman exposed.
Other Air Forces across the world – such as India – have managed to accommodate Sikhs and other religious groups’ grooming and clothing standards into the uniforms of their ground staff.
In the Indian Air Force Sikh pilots don’t wear their turbans or have beards during duty, but they are permitted to keep their hair long.
Pilots tie their hair loose and let it run out down the base of the helmet or bring the knot back to the base of the skull.
They have to take extra precautions to ensure that there’s no possible intervention in flight operations and flight safety because of the hair.
During WWII, the Khalsa flew with their turbans on instead of helmets, but military safety standards evolved.
Heather L. Weaver, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, praised the Air Force’s decision.
‘No one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country,’ Weaver said.
‘We’re pleased that the Air Force granted our client’s request, and we hope that all branches of the military come to recognize the importance of religious inclusion and diversity.’