FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Standing at attention deep in the ranks of the Soldiers in crisp ACUs and combat boots, Capt. Kamaljeet Kalsi was just like every other officer there - proud of his achievements and ready to graduate from Basic Officer Leadership Course Class 10-105.
The only thing setting him apart was his black turban and full beard. His presence at the ceremony at the Jimmy Brought Fitness Center at Fort Sam Houston Sept. 3 was another historic step the U.S. Army has taken in accepting practicing Sikhs into the military.
Earlier this year, Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan was the first Sikh in a generation allowed to complete U.S. Army BOLC without sacrificing the articles of his faith.
Several years ago, Rattan, a dentist, and Kalsi, an emergency room doctor, were each assured by their respective recruiters that their articles of faith wouldn't pose a problem. When they completed their studies, however, both men were told to remove their turbans and cut their hair and beards for active duty.
After several Sikh organizations got involved and a letter was sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which was signed by 43 members of the House of Representatives and six U.S. senators, the Army changed its mind. Special exceptions to Army Regulation 600-20 were allowed so Rattan and Kalsi could wear their dastaars (turbans) and keep their unshorn hair and beards as part of their uniform, and also retain their other articles of faith.
"History portrays Sikhs as warrior-saints and I believe that is what Sikhs are ... that's what our life is all about," Rattan said. "It is what the Holy Book (the Sri Guru Granth Sahib) teaches us."
While Rattan attended BOLC first, it was Kalsi who actually received the earlier exemption. He had been attending a course in emergency room medicine and reported to BOLC at Camp Bullis in July.
"After I got the exemption, the first in 23 years to do so, the press coverage was immense," Kalsi said of the worldwide attention to his and Rattan's cases. "The first day I got to BOLC, I had people coming up to me asking 'Were you that guy' We saw you in Army Times!'
"It's been a running joke for people who know me, but people will come up to me and ask, 'Where are you from'' I always say, 'I'm from Jersey!'" Kalsi said with a noticeable Garden State accent. "They are shocked and taken aback for a moment, but then they understand and they start smiling.
"While I was in BOLC, I was given a great opportunity to put together a presentation for the class, as well as provide information to our leadership, on the proper wear of the turban with the Army uniform," Kalsi added. "My ACU turban is really cool, it's my favorite. Every time I put in on, I feel this overwhelming sense of pride. It really grounds me, humbles me. Every time I put it on, my fellow Soldiers come up to me and say, 'That looks so great!'"
"I'm looking forward to bigger and better things in my career and to grow old with the Army," said Rattan, who attended Kalsi's graduation and is stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y. "I told Captain Kalsi by the time he got done, he would lose a lot of weight and he was going to be dark.
"He did really well and I've always looked up to him like another brother," Rattan said. "He's very calm and collected and I had no doubt in my mind he would do well, because he also stood up for what he believed in."
Practicing Sikhs have served in the armed forces since World War I, and the ruling in 1981 which disallowed Sikhs to join was due to alleged health and safety hazard of their turban and uncut hair.
Aided by the Sikh Coalition (http://www.sikhcoalition.org), Kalsi and Rattan appealed the Army policy because of religious convictions. They were joined by the Sikh Council on Research and Education, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and United Sikhs. More than 17,000 Sikhs and other sympathetic supporters signed petitions on their behalf.
To put their faith into perspective, there are 25 million Sikhs worldwide, making it the fifth largest religion worldwide after Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, and has been in existence for more than 500 years.
"To me, there's no greater career than a life of service as a Soldier. It's an honor and it's our obligation," Kalsi said. "As a Sikh, being a Soldier runs in my blood. Even though we are only two percent of India's population, Sikhs make up a third of the Indian military.
At one point in time, we were also a huge part of the British military. I'm looking forward to the day when we become a significant chunk of the American military.
"I want all the Sikhs who are coming in to have the same motivation and the same kind of mindset," Rattan added. "They need to remember that they are a Soldier and to work as a Sikh with their values intact.
"As soon as we have more and more Sikhs join the military, the citizens of this country will see us serving, they'll see us doing everything a soldier does, and see our loyalty for this country," Rattan said. "I think it'll improve over time as people get educated, ask questions. Information about Sikhs needs to trickle down to everyone, and by Sikhs being in the military and in other areas, we can do this."
Kalsi said that while heading to Fort Bragg, N.C., for his next assignment is exciting, it's a little bittersweet as well.
"The toughest part of going through BOLC was being away from my family," said of his wife and two young children. "I'm going to be at Fort Bragg - the center of the Army universe - for the next three years, but I won't be moving them down with me. I'll be a weekend dad.
"My family will stay in Riverside, N.J., which is where I'm from," Kalsi said. "I've got two little kids, and ripping them away from the family and support system they have there is not the best idea. Plus, with me potentially getting deployed at anytime, it wouldn't be fair to them to move them down.
"The great thing about the Army is that there are so many career paths possible. I'm looking forward to discovering my path," Kalsi said. "For the foreseeable future, I'm going to be an ER doctor at Womack Army Medical Center, and I'll also be the emergency medical services director for Fort Bragg, the home of the Airborne and Army Special Operations. This is what all my training has been about."
"We hope that this will encourage the Army to change its policy, instead of giving individual exemptions," said Sandeep Kaur, Sikh Coalition staff attorney. We just want the chance to serve, and we are moving in that direction.
"Rattan and Kalsi have both been accepted with open arms," Kaur said. "All the initial concerns that came up never came to fruition. We hope that this shows the Army that not only can Sikh Soldiers integrate with other Soldiers, but they can excel, if allowed to serve."
Kaur said that that a third exemption was recently granted for an enlisted Soldier, Simran Preet Singh Lamba, who is scheduled to attend in Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston. Lamba was recruited by the Army in 2009 through its Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program because of his language skills in Punjabi and Hindi.
Lamba was initially advised by an Army recruiter that his Sikh articles of faith would likely be accommodated, but in March 2010, his formal request for a religious accommodation was denied. Lamba appealed the decision, and his appeal was accepted.
"I am grateful to Army leadership for allowing me to serve America," Lamba said. "There is nothing about my Sikh religious beliefs that prevents me from excelling as a soldier. I look forward to serving this great country with honor."
"Lamba just recently joined the Army and I have no doubt he will excel," Kalsi said of his fellow Sikh Soldier. "He's a tough guy."
"We applaud the Army's decision, but we still have more work to do," said Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition. "Although Sikhs have a reputation for being among the finest soldiers in the world, Sikh Americans must still seek individual exemptions to serve their country. Religious freedom is one of the bedrock American values.
"Going forward, we hope that the U.S. military will accept with open arms any Sikh who wants to serve," Kaur added. "We're still working toward a day when Sikhs don't have to check their faith at the door."
"I think Rattan and I are just the first of many more Sikh Soldiers to come," Kalsi said. "It's my hope that my kids and kids in the next generation will be inspired by my struggle to get in the Army and do so themselves.
"We're looking forward to the day this goes from getting individual exemptions and becomes a general policy change," Kalsi added. "The military opens the door for so many opportunities and I would hate for my children not to have that opportunity.
"I am from the United States and this is my country," Kalsi said with pride. "I am a Soldier in the United States Army."