When Spc. Simranpreet Singh Lamba was a kid, he dreamed of joining the military. And though making dreams come true isn’t always easy, in the end, Lamba, 27, was able to realize his dream and joined the U.S. Army.
Lamba is a Sikh, a member of a 300-year-old religion founded in India. Sikhism asks that its followers not cut or shave their hair, so men wear turbans and full beards — and as such are unable to join the U.S. Army without seeking case-by-case exemptions to uniform policy.
“The granting of these accommodations is very rare,” said Amardeep Singh, director of programs for the Sikh Coalition.
Currently serving with the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Lamba is the first enlisted Sikh Soldier in more than three decades.
In fact, the only religious accommodations granted to Sikhs since the policy was enacted in the 1980s were granted last year, first to two officers and then to Lamba. For a group with a long history of military service, this is an important step.
“That’s what a life of a Sikh is. Our ancestors were warriors,” Lamba said.
With 20 million Sikhs worldwide, Sikhism is the planet’s fifth largest religion. It is also one of its newest, and deeply values the principles of justice, equality and truth. The monotheistic religion also emphasizes service to others, particularly in the armed forces.
In the United States, however, requests for accommodations for religious practices are granted only on an individual basis, and are frequently denied for reasons of unit or individual readiness, unit cohesion and issues with morale or safety.
“Obviously this has been a point of pain for our community,” Singh said.
Lamba, originally from India, spent his childhood dressing up in uniforms and practicing the perfect salute. He wanted to join the Indian Air Force, but his parents told him to put his studies first.
He came to the U.S. in 2006 to earn a master’s degree in engineering from New York University.
At the time, he thought serving in the U.S. military would be impossible. But when Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan were granted religious accommodations for their articles of faith, Lamba thought he would give it a try.
“When I came to the U.S. I decided to make this my home, make this my country,” Lamba said.
For him, there was no reason not to fight for it.
Because he was not a U.S. citizen at the time, he enlisted and was originally told an exemption would be made. When his request was formally denied he appealed it with the help of the Sikh Coalition in New York.
Nine months later, in August 2010, he officially joined the Army and became a citizen the day he finished basic training.