Iknoor Singh

With Help from UNITED SIKHS, I'm One Step Closer to Fulfilling My Dream to Serve in the US Army

All my life I have dreamed of serving my country, but when I tried to enlist in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at Hofstra University, I was told I couldn't due to my religious beliefs. I follow the Sikh faith which requires that I keep my hair long and wear a turban and a beard. The ROTC recruiters said I would not be able to enlist unless I complied with all army grooming and uniform rules, which would require me to immediately cut my hair, shave off my beard and remove my turban.

I could not believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision of choosing between the country I love and my faith.

Sikhs have a long and rich tradition of military service in nations across the globe stretching back to World War l. Currently, we serve in the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain and India among others. How is it possible that most Sikhs like me are prohibited from serving in the United States - a nation whose founding principle is religious freedom?

After I learned that a handful of Sikhs had already been granted religious accommodations I decided to go ahead and apply for the ROTC program. After being told the army would not be able to accommodate my faith, I reached out to UNITED SIKHS with whom I had previously interned. I knew the values for which they stood: that is to always put the Sikh community's interests above all else.

UNITED SIKHS' attorneys assured me that they would give this their best shot and encouraged me to keep a positive attitude. I was ecstatic that a Sikh organization had finally agreed to take up a case that would broadly open doors for Sikhs across the United States. They believed in me and my dream to serve in the U.S. army. After weeks of research and advocacy on my behalf, UNITED SIKHS and I sent a preliminary letter to the ROTC department regarding my situation and my desire to serve this nation.

We were soon rejected on the basis that allowing me in would severely impact unit cohesion, health and safety, and readiness of the unit.

But we did not stop there; UNITED SIKHS didn't even think about giving up on my dream.

Again we sent letters regarding my situation and my articles of faith, but this time it would go much higher up the chain of command; to Fort Knox Kentucky, the headquarters of ROTC Cadet Command. Their response was very similar to the one we had received before but at least we knew that we were grabbing the attention of Generals at Fort Knox. After appealing a few more times and getting rejected we enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which graciously agreed to assist me. Our final appeal was a strongly worded letter to ROTC Command, however we ended up receiving the same answer.

So after applying for an accommodation many times and constantly getting rejected, we were left with no option but to file a federal lawsuit against the army. The media attention that followed was trailed with good and bad feedback from the general public. Through it all, UNITED SIKHS' attorneys Manmeet Singh and Anisha Singh kept my confidence and spirits up. Finally after months of intense litigation and scrutiny, the Judge ruled in my favour.

I am to be granted an accommodation and an equal opportunity to apply for a contracted position in the ROTC program.

I am forever grateful and humbled by the dedication and hard work by the ACLU and UNITED SIKHS, who worked tirelessly to fight and advance the principle of religious freedom upon which this country was founded.

Without their faith in me and belief in the importance of my right to serve with my articles of faith intact, I would not be standing here today with this opportunity to chase my dream.

In Chardi Kala,
Iknoor Singh

To read more about this historic victory click here.

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Anita J Douglas, UNITED SIKHS, 1-519-551-8288, anita.douglas@unitedsikhs.org

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