In a historic legal win for religious freedom in the military, a member of the Sikh community graduated from Marine Corps recruit training Friday while wearing articles of faith intrinsic to the South Asian religion.
Pfc. Jaskirat Singh stood at attention -- while wearing a turban, beard and unshorn hair -- as he listened to the national anthem play on the parade deck at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. For Singh, the day was not only the culmination of three months of hard training, but nearly two years of legal tumult that allowed him to don traditional Sikh wear at boot camp.
He is likely the first enlisted Marine to graduate from recruit training while wearing articles of faith intrinsic to the Sikh tradition, specifically a beard and turban, according to the Sikh Coalition which, along with other advocates, has helped him and more than 50 Sikh Americans secure military accommodations for religious wear.
"I am honored to serve my country in the Marine Corps, and proud that I was able to do so while respecting my Sikh faith," Singh said in a press release from the Sikh Coalition. "I hope that my graduation sends a clear message to other young Sikhs who are considering military service: Your faith does not have to be a barrier to any career."
Singh graduated as an 0311 military occupational specialty, or infantryman.
His accomplishment represents an important step in years-long negotiations between the Sikh Coalition and the Marine Corps, which have butted legal heads since at least November 2021 over the accommodations, according to the press release.
Those negotiations reached a fever pitch in April of last year when Singh and three other plaintiffs sued the U.S. government after the Marine Corps offered an accommodation that would require Sikhs to surrender their turbans and beards while at boot camp.
Eventually, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Singh a preliminary injunction and ruled that the Marine Corps must allow Sikhs to wear their hair and beards in uniform, including at recruit training. Singh shipped off for boot camp in May 2023.
The legal win was only partial, however, and advocates are continuing to push for broader accommodations. Singh and another Sikh Coalition client, Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, are prohibited from wearing unshorn beards when deployed to areas where they would receive hostile fire or imminent danger pay -- in other words, combat zones.
"This presents an inherent limit on any Marine's career, given how much of the world such a prohibition covers and the forward-deployed nature of the branch," Giselle Klapper, the Sikh Coalition deputy legal director, told Military.com on Friday. "We will continue working to ensure that both of these men and others who come after them have full equality of opportunity."
This prohibition represents a painful thorn for Sikhs who serve in the military, especially for Marines. In 2011, Marine Cpl. Gurpreet Singh was killed in action while serving in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was made to shave his beard and cut his hair on that deployment, and died without being able to wear important articles of faith.
"I remember talks with him when we were deployed downrange in Afghanistan," Army Lt. Col. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, founder of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance and the first Sikh military officer to be awarded an accommodation by the Defense Department in 2009.
"He said, 'Maybe someday the Marine Corps allows Sikhs to serve with our turbans and beards,'" Kalsi recalled Cpl. Singh saying in Afghanistan. Kalsi said he was determined to make that happen.
"Of course, he passed away before he could see that," he said to Military.com on Friday.
Kalsi said that he felt "immense pride" for Pfc. Singh during his graduation day, and that it was surreal to return a salute from him.
"We've basically adopted him," Kalsi said. "So he's part of our family, and to have him salute back is just a very proud moment."
The military has previously tried to make the argument that beard accommodations would interfere with military tasks like donning a gas mask and making a protective seal around one's face, but Kalsi said that he has had no problems performing any military task because of his articles.
For example, he told Military.com that when he is in an environment that requires a helmet, he already has on his "patka" or small turban, which easily fits under his headgear.
Pfc. Singh similarly did not experience any issues in training, and specifically told reporters Friday that he had no problem creating a seal for his gas mask.
For the Marine Corps' part, a spokesperson told Military.com that Singh "did really well."
"He was a squad leader throughout training," Maj. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, told Military.com. "He met all the standards. He's a Marine. ... We're really excited to see what he does with his career."
The Sikh Coalition's legal efforts are not limited to the Marine Corps. For more than a decade, the coalition has headed efforts to help Sikhs serve in the military. In 2017, the group facilitated religious accommodations in the Army and did the same for the Air Force three years later.
While the Sikh faith centers around oneness and equality, it is also steeped in a deep "warrior-saint" tradition. Sikhs have been serving in the American military for more than 100 years, as well as other militaries around the world.
Following leave, Pfc. Singh will go to Camp Pendleton in California for additional training, according to the Sikh Coalition.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.