Sikh U.S. Army captain wins right to wear beard and turban

FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- As the sun rises over Fort Belvoir Army base in Virginia, officers of the 249th engineer battalion play a friendly game of football Frisbee.

Among them is 28-year-old Captain Simratpal Singh, the first active duty Sikh American soldier in 35 years to be allowed to serve while wearing his religious turban and beard while on active duty.

"Ever since I was a kid I had a fascination of being a soldier," Singh told CBS News.

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Captain Simratpal Singh, second from right, shaved his beard and removed his turban when he joined the Army.

Simratpal Singh

In the 1980's, President Reagan passed an executive order calling for all troops to look uniform - which meant no facial hair and no religious head wear.

To Captain Singh, his beard and turban are sacred articles of his faith. But in 2006, on his first day as a cadet at West Point, he was forced to shave his beard and remove his turban -- something he'd never done before.

"I remember one of the hardest things to do was to look in the mirror the next day and kind of have that self-image of yourself shattered completely of what a good Sikh is supposed to be," Singh said.

"It was a hard adjustment."

Last February, after a decade of service that included being awarded a bronze star for valor for defusing IEDs in Afghanistan, Singh decided to stand up for his beliefs. He took the Army to court seeking a religious accommodation to wear his turban and grow a beard... and he won.

"After 10 years I was like 'Wow, it finally happened!' And I was extremely excited about that."

Even his commanding officer, Major Vanessa Bowman, agreed that it was time for a change.

"It didn't create any tension for us in the office. Captain Singh is a very professional officer. He comes to work, he does his job," she said.

Singh says Sikhism is a religion based on service to others. He was inspired by his great grandfather and others who fought with the British in the two World Wars.

"Some day when Sikh American parents tell their kids that they can be whatever they want to be in this great country of ours, I hope that it rings a little bit more true. And it means that they can serve in the Armed forces just as freely."

Under Army regulations, Singh wears either a black or camouflage turban. Since his victory, three more Sikh soldiers have received religious accommodations to serve the U.S. while staying true to their religion.