Q&A: Alumnus Jaspreet Gill becomes 10th Sikh to receive religious accommodation after year-long application process

(Photo used by permission of Gill)
Jaspreet Gill, ’15, stands at Lehigh University, where his battalion is stationed this summer.

Jaspreet Gill, ‘15, attends Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. There he participates in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a college-based program for training commissioned officers for the U.S. military. On July 14, Gill became the 10th Sikh in the U.S. military to be granted religious accommodation.

Q: When did you find out that you had finally been given religious accommodation?

A: July 15. The woman in charge of my case called me.

Q: What will religious accommodation allow you to do?

A: Army regulation 670-1 states that all soldiers must follow a specific grooming standard. They have to have short hair and no facial hair. But on the other hand, Sikhs are required not to cut their hair or beard at any time. (Religious accommodation) allows me to serve while wearing my turban and keeping my beard. All I have to do is wear the camouflage turban over my normal one.

But there are two arguments against giving Sikhs religious accommodation. The first is that our long hair doesn’t let us wear helmets properly, but this is wrong. I’m sure (baseball coach) Mr. Millsback will attest to long hair not interfering with helmets as long as you have a good one. If I tie my hair low enough and put my turban over, a helmet will just fit right over.

The other issue is that our beard doesn’t allow for a good seal on gas masks, but that is not true either.

Q: How does it feel to be the 10th Sikh to ever receive this?

A: Pretty great, actually! A lot of people have been telling me that I’m pioneering this movement. I’m helping integrate Sikhs into the U.S. military. It’s like how the first black soldiers had a lot of obstacles to overcome.

But there’s a lot of pressure, too, because I know a lot of people will be watching me and my performance from now on. Politicians will be watching me, and even if I make a small mistake, they could use it against me and other Sikhs. It’s a lot of pressure because now I’m representing my community. But I feel like I’m capable and can set a good example for future Sikhs interested in the military.

But even though I’m glad I got an accommodation, the lengthy and arduous case-by-case accommodation process needs to be changed. I won’t truly be happy until I know that any capable Sikh can walk into a recruitment office and join the army.

Q: Who told you about this process?

A: I had never really heard about this process until I joined ROTC. When I was approached by Second Lieutenant Hume, who managed my recruitment, he told me that I would either have to cut my hair or get accommodation. So I looked more into it and found that in other cases, Sikhs were represented by the Sikh Coalition.

I called them, and they asked if I could do the job physically, mentally and, of course, spiritually. They talked about keeping up my grades in college and military record and asked if I was a good Sikh. After a lot of interviews, they decided I would be a good client and decided to represent me.

Q: How much did their services cost?

A: Nothing. The Sikh Coalition is a non-profit organization. They do a lot of work to improve the Sikh standard in America. For example, they campaign to stop the bullying of Sikh children, which is a big problem.

It’s not a big name, but they do a lot of good work.

Q: What was the application process like?

A: I applied in April and had been preparing to apply since September. First, I had to give my written statement. It was only three pages and the Sikh Coalition helped me.

Then I gathered evidence of three Sikhs who went through the process before me: Major Kalsi, Captain Rattin and Corporal Lamba. I used documents from their cases and reports about their performance. For example, Major Kalsi (Major Kamaljeet Kalsi was the Sikh in uniform wearing the pink turban who appeared on stage the last night of the Democratic National Convention.) was awarded a Bronze Star Medal and was promoted from captain. I also talked about Corporal Lamba’s promotion from specialist.

As we collected this information, more and more Sikhs were being accommodated. Within a span of four months, four additional Sikhs were accommodated, so I used information about them as well.

When we were finished, I submitted this packet to my commanding officer of my battalion — the Steel Battalion based out of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania — Lieutenant Colonel Donahue. The battalion executive officer Major Dunaway, who was a great help to me and my military science teacher, helped Lieutenant Colonel Donahue put together a Commanding Officer recommendation.

Q: Did you read the recommendation?

A: No, it has to remain fairly anonymous to be neutral. The CO recommendation has a great amount of weight.

Q: What happened after that?

A: After the recommendation, my packet was sent up the chain. An application for religious accommodation must go all the way up to the G-1, (who) is the general in charge of all personnel management and the one person who has the power to sign off. It’s a pretty lengthy process.  Each person would read the packet and sign off on it. That took about two months.

I’m not sure of all the steps after that. I know it went through the brigade level and corps level, but after that it’s kind of unclear.

That was the first major hurdle —just getting it to the G-1. At any given point, an officer could have said ‘I don’t like this kid,’ and (sent) it back down.

After it went through the G-1, someone filed it and I got an interview. The head chaplain of Fort Knox called me up one day and we had a short talk. The point was to check if I was actually Sikh. The questions were pretty basic, like, ‘Why do you keep your hair up? What are the basic beliefs? Will your duty as a Sikh interfere with your American duty? If you looked across the battlefield and saw another Sikh, would you shoot him? What are you going to put first, your religion or your duty?’

Overall, to be a good Sikh is to do your duty. So the interview went without hassle, but I know that a lot of people get tripped up in the interview. After that it was a lot more waiting, because the chaplain puts in his recommendation and then it goes back to the G-1.

In the meantime, we essentially started gathering supporters in case we had to go to court. The Sikh Coalition had congressman John Garamendi give a statement. The General Council heard my case. The Attorney General (Loretta Lynch) was a big help. In the past, the Attorney General reviewed the G-1’s decision on religious accommodation cases.

We were somewhat expecting to go to court. Up until now, the G-1 had a 100 percent dismissal rate. I was the first Sikh to get religious accommodation without going to court.

Q: Why weren’t you dismissed?

A: It beats me! My best guess is that (the G-1) saw how the army lost the last nine court cases and decided just to approve mine, because I had a strong case with powerful backings.

Q: How did you feel while you were waiting?

A: There were a lot of times where I was scared and nervous, but I was hopeful. I knew one way or another I would get that accommodation because I was dead-set on being in the military.

(Photo used by permission of Gill)
Jaspreet Gill, ’15, with Second Lieutenant Nguyen after completing an infantry movement drill in which they had to crawl through a field of mud.

Q: Is the accommodation permanent?

A: Yes, but there is a clause that says at any given time, the G-1 can repeal it. But the G-1 has yet to exercise that right for any Sikh with accommodation. And we are prepared to go to court at any point if needed.

As far as we are concerned, these are constitutional rights. We have a right to practice any religion.

Q: How does your family feel about your accommodation?

A: They knew I was going for it for a very long time, so naturally they were very happy.

When I first told them about going into the military, they were a little resistant. I’m their only son. But they got used to the idea. They knew how much this meant to me.

Q: Have people ever asked you about your religion in ROTC?

A: Yes, very often, actually. I was very surprised about how open people were instead of saying things behind my back. They would say ‘Hey, why are you wearing the turban?’

I went in with people telling me to expect a little bit of  racism. (There’s always that one guy.) But I haven’t experienced a single act of racism or prejudice based on my appearance since I’ve been here. All the other cadets I’ve met so far have been very accepting. We have a good brother and sisterhood going.

Q: After graduating from ROTC, what will you do?

A: I plan to go into active military for four to eight years. I hope to go into a combat branch, hopefully infantry or armored, but I still have three years to look at all my options before I have to make real, tough decisions.

Q: What inspired you to join the military?

A: There were a lot of factors. Looking around today, there are so many threats. You always feel like there’s a conflict going on.

I feel like I’m a good combat leader and soldier. I think I always knew I wanted to be an officer. I’ve wanted to be in the military ever since I first learned about it.

Sikhs are historically known to be great soldiers. There’s a story called the Battle of Chamkaur, where 40 Sikhs hold a fort against a million soldiers. Obviously, we lost, but the Sikhs put up a hell of a fight. Half a million were either killed or ran away. There’s a lot of those stories, so it makes you feel that it’s in your blood.

The fact that we’re in a time when there are so few Sikhs in the army also drives me.

I have a belief that we are born with a higher purpose. Some are born to lay down our lives for the greater good. I’ve always had the belief that I’m meant for that.

Q: Have you done anything to celebrate?

A: Not really, but I’m sure something will come along later!

By Sonja Hansen

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