Massachusetts Sikh soldier’s path to military service

As a signal officer, he leads Soldiers in the management of network operations, data communication and classified systems. He also serves on the Massachusetts National Guard Innovation Team

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Second lieutenant Kanwar Singh on the wooden deck of the USS Constitution for the officer commissioning ceremony – Photo: The Sikh Coalition
By Joseph Lacdan (Army News Service) | UNITED STATES |

BOSTON — As he stood among his fellow uniformed candidates awaiting the ceremony that would finally make them commissioned officers, Kanwar Singh looked upward, toward the sky and thanked God.

A devout Sikh, Singh turned to his faith in times of good and times of trial, knowing that devotion and prayer could carry him past obstacles, whether making it through the final weeks of basic training, or while standing against prejudice.

Huddled on the wooden deck of the USS Constitution, each of the 17 officer candidates sported Army service caps. The males had clean-shaven faces, except for Singh who had a beard and wore a black turban covering his dark hair.

Minutes later, Singh took the officer’s oath and rendered his first salute to 1st Sgt. John Helbert, his former recruiter, who spent years helping Singh reach this moment. The August 2018 commissioning ceremony marked a culmination of a journey far longer than Singh had anticipated.

Four years before, Singh, now a second lieutenant in the National Guard, filed for a religious accommodation following meetings with Helbert. Sikhs consider hair a sacred extension of the body and therefore must remain unshorn. Before his passing, the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, designated uncut hair as a sign of respect for God and also mandated that turbans must always be worn to maintain Sikh’s saint-soldier identity.

Kanwar Singh requested a provision from the Army to allow him to adhere to these requirements. His quest for a religious accommodation eventually landed him in Washington, D.C., and delayed his commission, but he continued to persist with the support of the nonprofit group Sikh Coalition and his fellow Guard members.

The Army granted him an interim religious accommodation in 2016 to attend basic combat training while keeping his articles of faith intact. The Army released a new directive in January 2017 based on the performance of previous Soldiers who received religious accommodations. It allowed Sikhs and members of other faiths to don articles of faith while in uniform permanently.

“If I had quit, I would not have been able to serve,” said Singh, 30. “Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of patriotic American Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians and service-members of other faiths who now have religious accommodations.

“That’s important to us as Sikhs; it’s not about us,” he added. “It’s also about the … broader societal good and that was important to me.”

In the years since, the Army and Defense Department further updated their stance on religious liberties. The DOD released new instruction Sept. 1 that improved the process for accommodating religious practices, holding that “sincerely” held religious beliefs do not impact military readiness. Further, Army commanders at every level will be “trained and advised on the principles, policies and procedures related to religious liberties and appropriate accommodations for religious practices,” per an Army directive published in July.

Singh left New Delhi in the summer of 2007 carrying only two suitcases and a few changes of clothes.

Kanwar Singh, a second lieutenant in the Massachusetts National Guard, works as a digital project leader for a major financial services company in Boston. Singh has earned three master’s degrees including a master’s of liberal arts from Harvard University. (Courtesy photo)
SIGNAL OFFICER

Fittingly, Sikh means “learner” in Punjabi as Sikhs value education. Last December, Singh added a third master’s degree in information technology. With his experience in the financial industry as a product leader and a management consultant, Singh represents the young innovative thinkers the Army sought to recruit as it advances toward future battlefield operations.

In July, he released an artificial intelligence-enabled iOS mobile app he created for the Air Force and Army, called “Camo for Military,” that helps Soldiers and Airmen manage inventory, report personnel issues and communicate effectively.

“When I built this mobile app I did not build it in hopes that I would get paid,” Singh said from his home office in Boston. “It’s more like I see a problem with how we serve our Soldiers and Airmen. How can we fix their experience through better use of technology?”

As a signal officer, he leads Soldiers in the management of network operations, data communication and classified systems. He also serves on the Massachusetts National Guard Innovation Team, collaborating with the state’s adjutant general to plan “hackathon” training exercises and design thinking sessions.

See full story, ‘For Massachusetts Soldier, path to military service was a spiritual one’, here.

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