Pfc. Jaskirat Singh has wanted to serve his country since a young age, inspired by his Sikh belief in serving others. However, Pfc. Singh, alongside two peers, was told by the Marine Corps to shave his beard and hair before joining the boot camp. Pfc. Singh was always more than sure that he wanted to become a Marine after graduating.
Having a deep respect for the Marine Corps' warrior ethos, he saw alignment with Sikh values of discipline, self-sacrifice, and service before self. When told that he would not be allowed to wear a turban and keep unshorn hair and beards at boot camp, Pfc. Singh felt that he was being forced to choose between his faith and his chosen career of military service — even though he knew that he could meet the Marine Corps' need for discipline and unit cohesion, as Sikhs have done for over a decade in other branches of the U.S. military.
After an initial attempt to secure a preliminary injunction failed, Pfc. Singh and his peers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in September 2022. During the legal battle, the Justice Department argued on behalf of the Marine Corps that uniform grooming standards were essential to instill a shared Marine identity among recruits. Note that, as pointed out by the Sikh Coalition, the Marine Corps is the only military service that resisted allowing Sikh men to maintain their articles of faith during boot camp. However, in December 2022, Judge Patricia Millett ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, asserting that the Marine Corps had to accommodate their articles of faith during boot camp. She emphasized that the Marine Corps already permitted various grooming standards, such as diverse hairstyles for women and short beards for men with chronic razor burns.
The grooming accommodations specified that Pfc. Singh would wear a cloth patka or parna during camouflage combat utility uniform exercises. For his service uniform, Singh would have to wear a dark green turban, and for his dress blue uniform, Singh would have to wear a white turban; this would be aligned with the colours of his peers' hats with those uniforms, otherwise known as covers. A black swim cap would be allowed during swimming. The karha would also be acceptable, except during martial arts training when the karha posed a risk to others.
Of course, Pfc. Singh believed he could be a Sikh and a Marine, which pushed him not to give up. The devoted Sikh also found inspiration from the Sikhs who came before him and showed that it was possible to serve successfully and honourably while wearing turbans and beards, like in the Army and Air Force. Simply put, he did not want the next generation of young Sikhs to face the same barriers he did and believed he had to stand up for their right to practice their faith. As part of a Sikh Coalition release, Pfc. Singh conveyed, "I am honoured to serve my country in the Marine Corps and proud that I was able to do so while respecting my Sikh faith."
Pfc. Singh's case was represented by the Sikh Coalition, Winston & Strawn, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and BakerHostetler. "His achievement is yet another testament to the simple fact that no one should be made to choose between any career and their religious beliefs.", says Giselle Klapper, Deputy Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition. As part of Sikh Coalition's press release last year, Amandeep Pfc. Singh Sidhu, a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP, pointed out that the injunction marks progress, aligning with policy adjustments in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, enabling over 100 Sikhs to serve with their religious articles. Sidhu emphasized the need to shift the focus toward implementing a comprehensive policy change within the U.S. Marine Corps to ensure equal opportunities for all Americans, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
Fast forward to date, Pfc. Singh has made history by becoming the first Marine to complete boot camp while maintaining his Sikh articles of faith. On August 11, Pfc. Singh's graduation as an 0311 military occupational specialty, or infantryman, from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, marked a significant milestone. The new graduate shared his sentiments with reporters following his graduation ceremony, "I hope that today's events can show other young Sikhs that if they want to pursue a career in the military, they can do so while staying true to their faith."
Unlike his fellow male recruits who spent their mornings in bootcamps shaving, Pfc. Singh focused on tying his turban and grooming his beard. Pfc. Singh's fellow recruits did inquire about his turban, but he found them to be supportive of the diversity entering the Marine Corps. "They were pretty much like, 'Yo, that's pretty cool. That's dope,'" Pfc. Singh shared with reporters. Despite initial concerns, he successfully completed tear gas training with his sealed gas mask and encountered no significant issues due to his beard. Marine spokesman Major Joshua Pena congratulated Pfc. Singh and his battalion on their graduation, highlighting Pfc. Singh's role as a squad leader in his platoon.
That said, while a step in the right direction, the recent legal victory remains incomplete, and supporters are still striving for more extensive concessions. Both Pfc. Singh and another client represented by the Sikh Coalition, Marine Captain Sukhbir Pfc. Singh Toor are restricted from maintaining unshorn beards when deployed to regions where they would be eligible for hostile fire or imminent danger pay, essentially combat zones. As such, the Sikh Coalition is continuing to advocate for policy changes within the Marine Corps to ensure that future Sikh recruits can secure religious accommodations without resorting to legal action.
Regardless, Pfc. Singh's remarkable achievement is undeniably a great victory. His determination and the legal win mark a significant step towards greater inclusivity. Pfc. Singh's accomplishment is a personal triumph and a beacon of hope for a more diverse and inclusive armed forces. Speaking to reporters, Pfc. Singh expressed his pride in showcasing that his turban and beard do not undermine his status as a Marine and committed to persistently reaffirming this in the times ahead, "I'm proud to demonstrate that wearing a turban or a beard does not make me any different or less of a Marine, and I intend to prove that in the future."