Captain Simratpal Singh

When he took off his turban and shaved his beard upon entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Captain Simratpal Singh thought he could not serve in the U.S. Army, while keeping articles of his Sikh religion.

The day of that difficult choice, the young cadet vowed he would find a way to come back to his faith.

"It was an excruciating experience and an excruciating decision to make, and the only way I could justify it then was that promise I made to myself. And to be honest with you, I wouldn't want any kid to have to go through that," Singh told VOA.

Singh went on to graduate from West Point and was commissioned in 2010. He became an Army Ranger and deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, receiving a Bronze Star for his service, all while adhering to the Army's grooming and appearance standards.

Then, during a Pentagon celebration marking the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi last year, he looked around the room and saw Sikh service members in uniform with turbans and beards; they had sought and won a waiver.

The now-captain applied for a religious accommodation, and this March it was granted. A decade after entering West Point, Singh has regrown his beard and proudly wears a turban.

"Ten years later, to have that promise fulfilled, to be true to myself, is a pretty extraordinary feeling," he said.

Fighting for change

The road to inclusion was not a short or easy one for Singh and three other U.S. soldiers who recently received temporary waivers, after filing legal claims against the U.S. Department of Defense.

The exemptions will be up for review and could be voided at any time.

Attorney Amandeep Sidhu with McDermott Will & Emery represented the four, along with co-counsel the Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Captain Simratpal Singh shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the 2010 graduation from U.S. Military Academy at West Point

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