SimranPreet Singh Lamba
Specialist Simran Preet Singh Lamba, who recently became the first enlisted Sikh soldier in more than two decades to complete basic training while maintaining his Sikh identity, began the next level of training this month to become a combat medic.
The Army’s policy on religious garb excludes wearing a dastaar (Sikh turban) and having kesh (unshorn hair). Every Sikh recruit must apply for an individual exemption to maintain these articles of faith.
With a master’s degree in industrial engineering from New York University, Simran Preet Singh initially wanted to be in Army logistics and engineering. But, according to Army protocol, he first has to become an officer candidate, which will happen in April 2011 when he finishes his current training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Enlisted soldiers are new recruits that are below the rank of an officer.
As a specialist, Simran Preet Singh is already on top of his class.
“If you are a specialist, you are respected more,” he said. “It’s a big deal.” In his company of 180 soldiers, only about 10 are specialists, he said. Having a prior college degree is a requirement.
Simran Preet Singh is the third Sikh candidate that the Army has accommodated. In March, Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist, became the first Sikh commissioned officer to complete basic training in more than two decades. In September, Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a physician, became the second Sikh commissioned officer to complete basic training. He will be going to Afghanistan this month.
All three met the rigorous requirements of a solider during basic training such as wearing a helmet over a small turban during field exercises and successfully sealing a gas mask.
“From our perspective we finally have proof of concept that there should be no doubt in the Army that Sikhs can properly serve in the Army and function as soldiers,” said Amardeep Singh, programs director of the Sikh Coalition, which is advocating for Sikhs to be allowed into the military. “All have done it in basic training and are doing it now in the Army.”
Born in New Delhi, India, Simran Preet Singh was naturalized two hours before his graduation on Nov. 10. Citizenship was an incentive for the Army’s pilot program, called MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. The 14-month long program, which began in January 2009, allowed up to 1,000 non-citizens, who did not have permanent resident status but had been here legally for at least two years, to join the Army if they had specific medical or foreign language and cultural expertise.
Simran Preet Singh came to the United States on a student visa in December 2007. He was proficient in Punjabi and Hindi, which were among the languages on the program’s list. So he jumped at the opportunity.
But when he was recruited last year, the Army told him that it could not guarantee his Sikh articles of faith would be accommodated. Simran Preet Singh submitted a formal request for accommodation through the Washington law firm McDermott Will, and Emery, which is working with the Sikh Coalition on Army exemptions, and on ultimately changing the Army’s policy to include all Sikhs.
“Giving my Sikhi away was never an option,” he told SikhNN. “I wanted to do it the way I want to do it, not just to get citizenship.”
Serving in the military is something Simran Preet Singh had wanted to do for as long as he can remember, since he was four or five years old.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I never thought something like this would happen.”