CHANDIGARH (TIP): Twenty-nineyear- old Delhi-born Simranpreet Lamba, the US army’s only enlisted Sikh soldier, has also now become the first of the community to be promoted to the corporal rank in America in three decades. Corporal is the 5th rank in the US army, above specialist and directly below sergeant. Lamba, who went to the US in 2006 to finish his education, is thrilled. “I’m a proud US army soldier today. There’s nothing about my beard and hair that bars me from doing anything any other soldier would do,” Lamba told TOI over phone from the US. After his January 2009 graduation from New York University with a master’s degree in industrial engineering, Lamba had decided to stay in the US and started a career in a private sector. His enlistment in 2009, however, triggered a nine-month review in which army officials pondered over if he could serve while sporting a turban, uncut hair and a beard.
Later that year, two Sikh officers, a doctor and a dentist, were allowed to serve in the Army while wearing a beard, unshorn hair and a turban, inspiring him to apply to a combative rank profile. US army policies since 1984 had effectively prevented Sikhs from enlisting in the soldier rank. But Lamba requested a waiver from the Army to allow him to keep his articles of faith. He was then recruited under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest recruiting program, which enlists legal non-citizens with language skills, such as his knowledge of Punjabi and Hindi. Throughout his training, Lamba wore a turban, that was patterned on army combat uniform, instead of the regular patrol cap, which fit underneath his Kevlar helmet. He used petroleum jelly to get a grip between his beard and gas mask, and was able to keep his hair clean under all conditions, meeting the military’s concerns about training and appearance. Lamba hopes his story will encourage other Sikhs to serve, even though the path to US military service might not be an easy one for them.