As many of you have heard, soldiers in today’s Army can wear beards for reasons of religious freedom. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to keep a razor at the ready if the threat of chemical and biological agents arises.
In January, the Army granted brigade level commanders the authority to grant soldiers religious accommodation requests requiring a waiver for uniform wear and grooming practices such as wearing a hijab, wearing a beard and wearing a turban or under-turban/patka, with uncut beard and uncut hair.
“Based on the successful examples of soldiers currently serving with these accommodations, I have determined that brigade-level commanders may approve requests for these accommodations, and I direct that the wear and appearance standards established in paragraph 4 of the enclosure to this directive be incorporated into AR 670-1,” then Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning wrote in the Army directive.
But as anyone who has ever worn a protective mask knows – they don’t work right unless they are sealed against your skin – something facial hair will prevent.
“Study results show that beard growth consistently degrades the protection factor provided by the protective masks currently in the Army inventory to an unacceptable degree,” the directive states.
“Although the addition of a powered air-purifying respirator and/or a protective mask with a loose-fitting facepiece has demonstrated potential to provide adequate protection for bearded individuals operating in hazardous environments, further research, development, testing, and evaluation are necessary to identify masks that are capable of operational use and can be adequately maintained in field conditions.”
So until better equipment is fielded, the Army will likely suspend these religious accommodations when the threat of exposure to toxic CBRN agents arises, the directive states.
“An accommodation for a beard may be temporarily suspended when a specific and concrete threat of exposure to toxic CBRN agents exists that requires all soldiers to be clean-shaven, including those with medical profiles,” the directive states.
“Commanders may require a soldier to shave if the unit is in, or about to enter, a real tactical situation where use of a protective mask is actually required and where the inability to safely use the mask could endanger the soldier and the unit.”