Army ban irks Sikh student

Vicky Singh was a high school student in Georgia when he met a man who changed his life.

"He was a very old person, a World War II veteran," said Singh, now 21. "He was happy to see me with a turban -- even though I didn't know him -- and he said he served with a group of Sikhs in World War II. He said, 'Your people are very brave.' I was surprised. I didn't know anything about my history or my culture's participation in the world wars."

That conversation sparked Singh's curiosity, and he grew from someone ignorant of Sikh history into an advocate for Sikhs wanting to serve in the American military. Singh is now a Sikh activist, creator of a Sikh military Web site and a computer science student at Ohlone College.

Inspired by the conversation, Singh began researching, slowly collecting images, postcards and information about Sikhs in the military. He met other community members, like the veteran, who told him about their experiences.

When he turned 18, something happened to motivate him further: An Army recruiter asked him to consider enlisting.

He agreed to come to the office for a general education test. But when he arrived for his appointment, he found out he couldn't join unless he gave up the turban, long hair and beard required by his religion.

"I felt kind of bad that I couldn't get in the Army," he said. "It felt like getting bad grades. I did feel discriminated against, religiously. But I thought, 'Well, it's not their fault. Theydon't know about my culture or history.'"

Singh's family moved to California, and he decided to show his collection of Sikh military artifacts on a Web site to educate people about the history of Sikhs in the military.

Sikhs had been permitted to serve in the U.S. military with turbans, long hair and beards as late as 1986, when the United States stopped waiving uniform and grooming requirements for religious reasons.

According to the Sacramento Bee, officials say a clean-shaven appearance is unifying and practical -- a gas-mask leak caused by a beard could be deadly, for instance. But Singh said the restriction shows a lack of cultural understanding.

"If it's such a personal-safety issue, why do the UK and Canada allow it?" he said. "It's a freedom-of-religion issue. I would feel guilty inside if my hair was shorn. I would do it if my religion allowed me to, but it doesn't."

Singh said military service is traditional, and many other Sikhs want to join. "Everyone has grandfathers or ancestors who were in the Army. Our history is linked to this stuff. A lot of young people would like to be part of that history."

The Web site,, is intended to educate people about the culture's history and help sway public opinion in favor of religious exceptions, he said.

"Doing the Web site, I realized I had found a purpose," he said. "This is a democracy, and policies can change."

Singh said he was shy before he began the Web site, but the project has brought him closer to his community.

He now serves as a board member of the Wareguroo Network, a California student organization, as the West Coast representative of global nonprofit United Sikhs, and a member of the International Sikh organization. He is involved in his temple, Fremont Gurdwara, and helps organize weekend Sikh youth camps.

Despite his busy schedule, Singh said he has no intention of giving up his Web site. He is expanding his research to sources in England and hopes to add video to the site.

"I feel good that I'm doing something for my community by just sitting at home," he said. "I just want to spread this information."