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NEWS | May 15, 2024

MRTC officer celebrates Army's support for Sikh Soldiers at Times Square 'Turban Day'

By Sgt. 1st Class Neil W. McCabe Army Reserve Medical Command

The Sikh-American Army Reserve officer, who in 2009 was one of the first Soldiers the Army allowed to serve in uniform with his turban and beard, was a featured speaker at the May 11 “Turban Day” held at Times Square here with members of the Sikh community performing folk dances and songs and offering free turbans to passersby.

“Today, we gather to celebrate the profound significance of our turbans, which not only symbolize our faith but also embody the enduring spirit of Sikhism that unites us,” said Lt. Col. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, who is assigned to the Sacramento, California, based 7305th Military Training Support Battalion, 2nd Military Training Brigade, Medical Readiness and Training Command, to the crowd from the stage.

“I was embraced by the U.S. Army in 2009, and now there are plenty of Sikh serving without any kind of questions asked,” said the graduate of New York University’s College of Dentistry.

“I've been serving this country for the last 17 years. I've been deployed. I've had a very fortunate time in the U.S. Armed Forces,” said Rattan, who deployed with 10th Mountain Division. “I've learned a lot.”

Rattan said he was pleased that more Sikhs are taking advantage of the Army's expanded policy.

“I have nothing but positive things to say about the military,” he said. “There’s quite a number of Sikhs who have been serving in the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force—the U.S. Navy and Marines—they’re doing their best as well, too.”

Soon, the time will come when there will be many more Sikhs serving in every branch of the armed forces, he said.

“We recently had a few graduates from West Point,” he said. “Hopefully, we'll have a general soon.”

The colonel wrapped up his remarks by quoting Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism: “‘Recognize a whole human race as one as we stand in solidarity’--let these words echo in our hearts,” the colonel said. “We stand never to fall with honor and pride; we march on this day for Sikh Turban Day in New York, USA.”

‘Turban Day’ organizer said he invited Rattan because Sikhs are proud of him

Kawal "Kenny" Deep Singh, the organizer of "Turban Day," said having Rattan at the event was an honor.

“We invited Colonel Rattan from California today, and it's a proud moment for the Sikhs to have a turbaned Sikh in the Army,” he said.

“To serve in the U.S. Army with your religious beliefs, especially for the Sikh religion followers, is a moment of joy,” he said.

“We would love to serve in the U.S. Army because this is our country today," he said. "We have raised our children, and our next generations will be raised here, and we are proud that the Army is now including us in the armed forces.”

The Plainsboro, New Jersey, resident said this was the sixth year the Turban Day organization held its event in Times Square.

He said one of the most popular parts of the event is the free turbans for anyone who wants one.

“When people here see you tie the turban, they love it,” Singh said.

“We make them feel like a king, right? It's a moment of pride for them that they love wearing a turban and walking in Times Square when a few hours from now, you'll see many people still wearing a turban and walking in Times Square.”

Singh said sharing the turban with non-Sikhs also exposes them to the religion and its tenets.

“It's spreading the beliefs of our founders, of our religion about love, universal brotherhood, equality,” the businessman said. “When we talk about the sacred religion to them as to what are our doctrines, what are our beliefs, they're surprised that they didn't know anything about the sacred religion.”

Singh said the turbans offered to the passersby come in a dozen colors, but the color has no significance.

“People are inquisitive; people have their own preferences so that they would pick a color. We would love to tie them the color they love,” he said.

“As far as the colors are concerned, people today match, so I’ve blended my with my shirt, and you might see in the background people are wearing red, blues, whites, and I have 10 colors in my wardrobe.”

New York City investment banker Gurpreet Sodhi, one of the volunteers tying on the free turbans, said he wore his red, white and blue turban to show off his patriotism.

“Whenever I go to the office on Sept. 11 or July 4 or around the time, you'll see the American flag on my turban,” Sodhi said. “That's what I do, even on the Memorial Day.”

Sodhi said Rattan is a role model for other Sikhs, and he is working to encourage young Sikhs to join the U.S. military.

“We want to spread the message of diversity as much as we can, and I think the society is better for it,” he said.

The banker said the Sikh community wants to see more than Sikh doctors joining the military, which is the case in India.

“Not only just being doctors in the army, but also be on the front lines because I think that's a lot of talent not tapped into; we want to use this event to promote hiring in the U.S. armed forces in communities from here,” he said.

“Sikhs are only 2 percent of the Indian population, but they form around 60 or 70 percent of the armed forces,” Sodhi said. “This is something we want to cultivate in this country.”

Rattan said he agreed to travel from California when Singh told him that he started "Turban Day" to normalize the turban so people would stop bullying his kids in school.

Kanwal Samra, a Defense Department Civilian, echoed that sentiment.
She attended the event with her son Gurnaz Singh Gill and daughter Mehr Kaur Gill.

“To me, Turban Day represents leadership, equality, upholding justice, and protecting the weak, which I want to pass on to my kids—and also to be courageous enough to represent these Sikh values in the face of bullying,” she said.

Rattan: I tried to enlist in the Army four times

Before he went on stage, Rattan said that although he is an Army dentist, his current job is as an observer, controller, and trainer for training events, such as the Global Medic Exercise held at Fort Hunter Liggett, California.

The MRTC runs Global Medic as a parallel exercise to the larger Combat Support Training Exercises, or CSTXs, in two locations, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and Fort Hunter Liggett.

Rattan said he is slated to work with medical units, mentoring them as they learn to operate in a field environment. Rather than evaluating units on their medical skills, he is tasked with gauging how they interact with their higher headquarters and internally under stress.

Now, he said, he is a seasoned officer, but the Army rejected him three times.

“I tried joining the military a long time ago because of family history, and I tried about three times, and the fourth time was a charm,” he said.

“When I got into dental school (that's when it happened); I wanted to join when I was 18, but it didn't happen; tried again when I was 20, did not happen, and tried again when I was 22,” Rattan said. “It didn't happen. Then, eventually, when I got into dental school, that was my time, and I was able to get into this profession, which I really admired.”

The colonel said the Army was a different place then, but it was changing.
“We had to explain ourselves as Sikhs, and we are able to function in the armed forces,” he said.

“I was given an accommodation at the time to be able to go through the basic training with my turban and beard, and I'm really very much thankful to the military for giving me that chance, and they saw me going in and coming out of it successful,” he said.

“It opened the doors for everybody else,” he said.

Sikh Army lieutenant found the Army open to his beard, turban

Army recruiting officer 1st Lt. Amarjeet Singh, the operations officer, Brooklyn South Company, U.S. Army NYC Recruiting Battalion, said he was thrilled to attend the "Turban Day" with his colleague Capt. Tyler Stotts, the commander of Brooklyn North Company, U.S. Army NYC Recruiting Battalion, which has operational control of the Armed Forces Career Center at Times Square's Military Island, where the two men mixed with the participants and took in the atmosphere.

Singh said he found his Sikh upbringing prepared him to be an Army officer.

"Growing up as a Sikh, the values that were instilled into me was about selflessness, service, dedication, discipline, and integrity, which is very much similar to what we were taught in the United States Army," he said.

"These align very well with each other, and that was my reason to join."

Singh said the turban is part of his identity and his daily routine.

“Tying on the turban every morning is just like us doing PT in the Army,” he said.

“It's part of our routine,” Singh said.

"Once we put on our turban, it just gives us more confidence, and it gives us a sense of pride to go to work and accomplish the day," he said.

Like many Sikhs, the City University of New York graduate said he was anxious about how the Army would react to him.

“One of my biggest concerns was me keeping my identity as a Sikh and being able to wear my turban, and to have my unshorn beard, and still be able to serve my country,” he said.

"Once I reached out to Army recruiters and the college ROTC program advisors, they informed me about the recent changes that the Army has gone through, which now allow Sikhs to serve with their beards and turbans," he said.

"It was great news for me because that allowed me to join the ROTC program and be able to commission as an officer in the United States Army."

The native of Queens, New York, said he can now speak to recruits about the Army's diversity programs as a beneficiary of the programs himself.

"The new Army's motto is: 'Be All You Can Be,'" he said. "I want to say that the Army is really putting people first, and that is strengthening the Army to accomplish the bigger mission. Diversity is our strength."

It is more than just a motto, Singh said.

"If you are coming from a different background or you have a different belief system, just know that the Army will accommodate your joining the force today."

Rattan: Young Sikhs should consider military careers

Rattan said for Sikhs, the beard and turban are central to their identity.

“The turban means freedom,” he said. “The turban means a lifestyle for somebody trying to practice a certain faith; a turban is an extension to long hair. For the Sikhs, it's a religious symbol as well.”

The dentist said the turban is both cultural and religious.

“For us to have a turban means a lot to us,” he said. “It tells us who we are, it reminds us of our values, so I would say: ‘Let Sikhs practice their faith because if they stick to their values, they'll serve this country in a very most respectful way possible.’”

Rattan said his advice for young Sikhs considering a career in the Army is to reach out to a recruiter.

“Get in touch with any of the recruiters,” he said.

“The doors have been opened; come serve in the Army, in the Air Force, even in the Navy and Marines as well too, as the doors are open,” he said.

“Don’t be shy. Do what you feel you want to do,” the colonel said.

“We believe in freedom, and this is one way of making sure that you and everybody around you--they have the freedom they deserve.”