A Sikh airman made history when the U.S. Air Force granted him permission to wear a turban, beard and unshorn hair.
Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, an active duty crew chief at McChord Air Force Base near Lakewood, Washington, confirmed in a statement released Thursday by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund that he was given a religious accommodation, meaning he is partially exempt from the grooming and dress code that once prevented him from fully expressing his faith.
“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,” he said. “Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”
Born to an immigrant family, Bajwa joined the Air Force as a first-generation American in 2017. However, at the time, he was required to cut his hair and maintain a clean shave, which went against his Sikh beliefs. He then learned about accommodations granted by the U.S. Army to Sikh service members in addition to one granted to Muslim Air Force Cpt. Maysaa Ouza, a Judge Advocate General Corps officer who was permitted to wear a hijab in 2018 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Bajwa reached out to the Sikh American Veterans Alliance to see whether he, too, could qualify for such an accommodation and was connected with the ACLU.
According to SALDEF, the Air Force approved Bajwa’s request in response to a letter sent from the ACLU on his behalf. The Sikh American Veterans Alliance confirmed to HuffPost that the accommodation was granted in March.
Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi Singh, president of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance, said Bajwa was “the first active Airman allowed to wear his Sikh articles of faith while in uniform.”
In 2016, Sikh U.S. Army Capt. Simratpal Singh won a discrimination lawsuit that allowed him to remain on duty while wearing his turban and beard under a religious accommodation similar to Bajwa’s.
Though the exceptions remain a source of debate, in 2014, the Pentagon eased regulations on religious attire with an updated policy noting that “military departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) of service members” as long as it does not impact unit cohesion or military readiness.