Twenty-seven retired Army and Air Force generals are asking Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to finally lift the decades-old prohibition against Sikhs serving in the U.S. military while keeping the beards, unshorn hair and turban that are required as part of their faith.
In their letter, sent to Carter last month, the group likened such a move to President Truman's order desegregating the military in 1948.
"President Harry Truman promised 'that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin,' " the group said. "We urge you to strengthen DoD Instruction 1300.17 and make this promise real for patriotic Sikh Americans who wish to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces."
The 27 general officers writing to Carter include retired Lt. Gen. Mark Phillip Hertling, former U.S. Army Europe commanding general; retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John Douglass, a former assistant secretary of the Navy; Army Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, former deputy chief of staff for intelligence; and retired Army Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, former commander of 2nd Brigade and former chief of staff for the Army Reserve Command.
Separately, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, sent his own letter to Carter seeking an end to the ban.
"While I appreciate the importance of military protocol and understand the importance of unit cohesion, I do not believe that any American should have to choose between his or her religion and service to country," Kaine told Carter.
One of the primary reasons the military has used to justify the ban on beards over the years has been concern soldiers would not get a tight seal on their gas masks in the event of an attack. Sikhs and their advocates have noted that Sikhs serving in other militaries, including Britain's, have no problem securing their masks.
Sikhs served in the U.S. military from World War I through 1981, when then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger made their service contingent upon shaving their beards, cutting their hair and doffing their turbans.
Since 2009, three Sikhs have been allowed to serve in the Army, but their admission was on a case-by-case basis.
"All three of these service members wear turbans and maintain beards in a neat and conservative manner, and all of them can wear helmets and protective gas masks, in conformity with safety requirements," the retired generals wrote. "Two of them deployed to Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star Medal and MS [Meritorious Service] NATO Medal for their service.
"Given the success of these service members, we believe that Sikh Americans should be given an equal opportunity to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces without violating their religious obligations," they said.
One of the three, Army Maj. Kamal S. Kalsi, attended a January 2014 hearing on Capitol Hill where lawmakers grilled a Pentagon official over allegations that Christians were being discriminated against in the military.
Kalsi told Military.com then that Sikhs are going through what women and African-Americans previously went through in the fight to serve fully.
He said he understood the congressmen looking out for members of their faith, but that all faith groups need to be allowed to serve without unreasonable prohibitions.
"I think that every religion should be respected. I support concerns from every religious group about wanting to practice their faith freely, including Christian groups," Kalsi said.