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US Sikh Soldier Asks for Military Policy Change

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013 | 11:13 pm

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US Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi is on active duty as the emergency medical services director at Fort Bragg. He was given the Bronze Star Medal for exceptional performance during two tours in Afghanistan. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Cpt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan was promoted to detachment commander of dental activity at Fort Drum in 2010. He received an Army Commendation Medal and a NATO Medal for his service in Afghanistan. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Col. Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon served as an Army doctor from 1984 to 2009. He was stationed in many posts around the country, and was called for active duty during the First Persian Gulf War. He was a battalion commander, decorated with various awards including a Presidential Unit Citation, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, and an Army Flight Surgeon Badge. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Col. Gopal Singh Khalsa joined as a private in 1976 and served in the Special Forces unit for 10 years on parachute status, as a battalion commander overseeing an 800-person intelligence group. He received a Meritorious Service Medal with Silver Oak Leaf Cluster Award, amongst many other honors. Gopal Singh is still in the reserve command and has therefore served in the Army for 33 years. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Col. G.B. Singh enlisted as a dentist in 1979 and served until 2007. He was given several honors, including the (A) Prefix, the highest award a medical professional can receive while in the US Army. He was stationed in several areas in the US, as well as Korea. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Sgt. Sevak Singh Kroesen enlisted in the reserves in 1976. He was assigned to Signal Company, 11th Special Forces Group, and successfully completed airborne paratrooper and radio-teletype transmission-operator training. He then became a Special Forces communications sergeant and completed missions around the world, all with honor and distinction. He was honorably discharged in 1991. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Sgt. Kirnbir Singh Grewal served from 1977 to 1984. He entered the Army as a private and left at the E6 level as a nuclear, biological, and chemical NCO (staff sergeant). While in Germany, he taught companies how to survive a nuclear and biological warfare attack using protective gear. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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US Army Acting Sgt. Bhagat Singh Thind was recruited in July 1918 to fight in World War I. He received an honorable discharge on December 1918 with a character designation of "excellent." He then fought a legal battle for American citizenship. His case went to the Supreme Court, and lost. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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Winston Churchill congratulates Sikh soldiers during WWII for a job well done. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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Sikh soldiers fought as part of the Allied Forces during World War II. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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Paris: “In the last two world wars 83,005 turban-wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 were wounded. They all died or were wounded for the freedom of Britain and the world, and during shell fire, with no other protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith." - Gen. Sir Frank Messervy. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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Jerusalem: Sikh soldiers guard the streets during World War II. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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Italy: Sikh soldiers march through Monte Cassino during World War II. (courtesy: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi)

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Reporting from Washington - The Afghan insurgents had taken advantage of a recent dust storm to bury improvised explosive devices (IEDs) all around us. Our medics radioed in that they were bringing in a Marine from a blast just outside our main gate.

They rushed him into our emergency-room tent. He was breathing, but badly bleeding from multiple shrapnel wounds. We worked on him for the next two hours.

When he was being wheeled away to the recovery wards, he grabbed my hand. And with tears in his eyes, he said: “Thank you brother.”

“That is one of many moments during my service in Afghanistan that I will never forget,” said Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, during his testimony in front of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

“I can tell you with 100 percent assurance that none of my fellow soldiers or patients could care less that I was wearing a turban or had a beard while I was treating their wounds,” he said.

Kamaljeet Kalsi was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan. But the decorated soldier still has to apply for a religious accommodation to allow him to serve with his unshorn hair and dastaar every time he is assigned to a new unit or base.

On May 31, Kamaljeet Singh asked the commission to help end US military uniform policies that restrict Sikhs articles of faith.

“While I am grateful… for the opportunity to serve, it troubles me that my accommodation and that of other Sikh soldiers are simply individual accommodations,” he said. “The time has come and passed for our military to openly embrace those Sikhs who want to serve our country by removing the rules that presumptively exclude them.”

Kamaljeet Singh’s testimony was among several other testimonies on civil rights issues that were heard that day. The commissioners are expected to issue a report on the hearing, which will be used to advise the president and the Congress.

“It may very well be that that will garner some attention either from the president or the vice president, certain members of Congress,” said Commissioner Roberta Achtenberg. “We will be talking with them and seeing if we can’t generate interest in the issue, perhaps get them to call a hearing on the issue.”

The commissioners also have the ability to publicize issues they believe should be given additional attention.

“There is a good bit of sympathy among the commissioners on this issue, so I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to make an important recommendation to the president and to the Congress regarding the ability of Sikhs Americans to serve,” Achtenberg said.

In 2009, Kamaljeet Singh and Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan became the first Sikhs, in a generation, to be allowed to maintain their religiously mandated unshorn hair and dastaars while serving in the Army. And in 2010, Spc. Simran Preet Singh Lamba also received a similar exception.

In considering the accommodations, the Army examined the armed forces of other countries, including Great Britain, Canada, and India, which freely enlist Sikh soldiers. More than 83,000 Sikh soldiers died fighting alongside allied forces during the World Wars.

The Army also examined the service of Sikh soldiers in American history. Sikhs have served in the US military with honor and distinction since the early 1900s, Kamaljeet Singh told the commissioners. Bhagat Singh Thind was the first Sikh soldier in the US Army to fight in World War I. American Sikh soldiers have also served in the Korean War and the first Persian Gulf War.

The Sikh Coalition spearheaded the legal campaign to change the policy that bans Sikhs military service. With the help of the New York-based advocacy group, the three Sikh soldiers were able to demonstrate that they could wear helmets and gas masks during combat situations, probably the military’s greatest concern.

“We can serve our country and be Sikh at the same time,” Kamaljeet Singh said.

Sikh soldiers have served on Special Forces teams, he added. They have jumped out of airplanes as paratroopers, and have deployed in far-forward combat operations.

More than 15,000 Americans petitioned the Army, and more than 50 members of Congress signed letters of support before his request was granted.

Kamaljeet Singh began Officer Basic Training in July 2010, and was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2011 as the chief officer of a tented emergency room in Helmand province. He also served as chief of disaster medicine. He personally treated more 750 combat casualties and local nationals who suffered from IED blasts, gunshot wounds, and other emergent conditions. And he resuscitated back to life two patients that were clinically dead on arrival.

“All that mattered was whether I was an asset to our mission,” he said at the hearing. “Based on my Bronze Star Medal citation… I would humbly submit that I was, in fact, an asset to our mission.”

Tejdeep Singh also served in Afghanistan. He received the Army Commendation Medal and a NATO Medal for his service.

Kamaljeet Singh is now at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He is the medical director for the Department of Defense’s largest stateside emergency medical services (EMS) system.

“Both Capt. Rattan and Spc. Lamba would agree with me that our Sikh articles of faith not only do not interfere with our duties, but are in fact an invaluable asset to our military because their accommodation projects our country’s values of freedom and pluralism to the world,” he said.

“To my military, I would say that your prospective Sikh American soldiers are waiting to be embraced by you.”

Kamaljeet Singh comes from a military family, his father, Charan Singh Kalsi, told SikhNN after the hearing. His great grandfather was a soldier in the British Army, and his grandfather and father were soldiers in the Indian Air Force.

His brother, Ranjeet Singh Kalsi, is in medical school. Both came to Washington to see him testify.

“My brother is an amazing role model, not just for me but for Sikhs everywhere,” he said. “He is opening the flood gates for everybody to move forward, not just in the military but in other careers as well.”

Kamaljeet Singh has a wife and two small kids in New Jersey. He visits them every time he is off duty.

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