Pagan Nevada Guard Soldier Gets Waiver to Grow Beard; More May Follow

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Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper
Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper of the Nevada Army Guard's 3665th Ordnance Company is the first Nevada Army Guard Soldier to receive a religious accommodation for a beard. Hopper received his religious accommodation based on his Norse Pagan beliefs. (U.S. Army photo/Erick Studenicka)

The Nevada Army Guard's first religious accommodation waiver granted a Norse Pagan soldier permission to grow a beard. Now, it is considering two similar requests from Pagan soldiers, according to a recent Army news release.

In 2017, the Defense Department expanded the number of faiths it recognizes and released guidance on how troops can apply for a religious accommodation waiver that will let them wear otherwise-prohibited items, such as a turban, headscarf or beard, in accordance with their "sincerely held beliefs."

Since then, the Army and Air Force have made headlines by granting waivers that accommodate service members of the Sikh and Muslim faiths, which often require wearing a turban or beard.

A waiver allowed Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper of the Nevada Army Guard's 3665th Ordnance Company grow a Norse beard, or Skegg, which he sees as a "sacred and defining feature of masculine men."

Related: Soldier Allowed to Have a Beard Because of his Norse Pagan Faith

"In short, it is honoring the pillars of Heathenism, our ancestors and ancient Gods and way of life," the 34-year-old from Madison, Alabama, said in a release. "My personal faith is deeply tied to the modern warrior lifestyle that I have been able to live during my military career."

His polytheistic religion is based on Scandinavian-centric ancient beliefs and practices.

Service members seeking religious accommodation waivers must submit to their General Court-Martial Convening Authority officer a packet that includes their written request, a chaplain's interview memorandum, a legal review and recommendations from their chain of command.

The news release predicted the Nevada Guard will see an increase in religious accommodations as military regulations and policies evolve.

However, Maj. Donald Crandell, Joint Force State Chaplain, said waivers should be reserved for "extraordinary" steps to show faith or belief while on military duty.

"The chaplain corps will work with any military member to aid them in a genuine pursuit of an accommodation," Crandell said. "However, we are not actively promoting a trend in this direction or seeking to normalize it."

Meanwhile, Hopper has been deployed to Afghanistan for the last two months and said he keeps his waiver with him at all times in case he encounters superiors who don't know about this new process in the Army.

"Once I present my memorandum for record and cite all of the applicable regulations and directives, the focus on the beard tends to go away, for the most part," he said. "I see it as a phase very similar to when the Army authorized the wear of black socks during the fitness test. It is something new and authorized, and you will always encounter people who do not like change. That is just life."

But his waiver for the groomed, maximum 2-inch beard could be suspended at any point if there's a "threat of toxic exposure" in Afghanistan.

"I have had absolutely no hindrance to my professional performance or accomplishment of the mission due to my beard while deployed in Afghanistan," Hopper said. "I do get up a little earlier than others to make sure it is in accordance with AR 670-1, but that is about it."

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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