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Sikhs gather for DOD-sponsored Vaisakhi celebration

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (April 29, 2016) -- Service members and civilian members of the Sikh community from the Washington, D.C. area, as well as some Solders from as far away as Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and New York, met April 29 at the Pentagon for a Sikh Vaisakhi celebration, sponsored by the Office of the Pentagon Chaplain.

The Sikh Vaisakhi, which included both prayer and music, is a celebration of the Sikh New Year. This is the third time the event has been held at the Pentagon.

"This is an opportunity for us to facilitate the free exercise of religion," said Army Chaplain (Col.) Kenneth R. Williams, of the event. He serves as the Pentagon Chaplain. "We have some folks in our military that are very dedicated and faithful followers of the Sikh religion, and they have asked for us to sponsor an event. Like we usually do in the Army, Army chaplains, when we are requested for accommodation -- we try to do that. It's an opportunity to celebrate a unique and different faith and learn about each other."

Ensuring equal opportunity to practice one's faith, Williams said, goes beyond the Army. Even more so, he said, it's critical to being an American.

"It's at the core of who we are as Americans, because we as Americans traditionally come from a lot of cultures, national origins, races, colors, and faith groups. To respect all people regardless of their background and religion is at the core of who we are."

Army Capt. Simratpal Singh, an electrical engineer with the 249th Engineering Battalion, Prime Power, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was one of those Sikhs attending the event at the Pentagon.

Born in Punjab, India, he and his family immigrated to the United States when he was just 9 years old. He was in 4th grade at the time.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I kind of had a fascination with the Soldier's life," he said. "Sikhs have a fairly rich tradition of military service back home, in India. So my great grandfather was in World War I, and I used to hear the stories. When I came to the United States, I knew I wanted to do military service."

His father was given political asylum in the United States, he said, "We were given the opportunity to come here. So I knew I wanted to repay that aspect of it. Essentially, I am grateful for the safety my family got and the opportunity my family got for being here. So I knew that, combined with basically the fascination of being a Soldier, I knew I wanted to go into the Army at some point."

Singh studied electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he enrolled in 2006. He was commissioned as an officer in 2010.

Singh was recently granted accommodation by the Army to wear both a beard and a turban, while in uniform. Both are critical components of expression of the Sikh faith, he said.

"This is how I grew up from childhood until 18," he said. "This is how I knew I was supposed to practice my faith and live my life. Now, having been granted this accommodation, I am able to outwardly express my faith, and live the way I know my religious teachings have taught me to live. And in doing that, if I am outwardly living it, then for me I am able to live it more easily on the inside ... that's the best way I can put it. It is easier for me to internalize those Sikh values if I am wearing my articles of faith."

Pardeep Singh Nagra, who serves as the director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, is a historian and well-known Sikh speaker, teacher and trainer. He was one of the speakers at the Sikh Vaisakhi and explained the importance of wearing a beard, wearing a turban, and uncut hair for Sikhs.

Sikhs, Nagra said, take an oath to "serve and protect."

"When a Sikh sees others in need, they must come to their side, and to their aid," he said, adding that it doesn't matter what faith or nationality the person in need might be. "It could be responding to a humanitarian crisis, serving a community as a first responder, or speaking out against injustice in our society."

Sikhs wear turbans and beards, Nagra said, and that provides visible accountability to others of their oath to serve and protect.

"We as a society love to see individuals in uniform," Nagra said. "And it is what that uniform represents for us in society for the person wearing it. If that person wasn't in uniform, but in jeans and a tee shirt, we wouldn't necessarily have the same accountability for who and what they represent. For Sikhs, this identity has made us publically accountable in the same way."

Petty Officer Feena Kaur, a sailor who works on gun systems used on naval aircraft, has served as a Sailor for six years now. She also spoke at the Sikh Vaisakhi, and said she sees her service to her country as part of her commitment as a Sikh to serve.

"Since the birth of Sikhism, it has been instilled in both Sikh men and women that we must stand for something greater than ourselves," she said. "Sikhs are asked to always step forward and fight for justice, to strive every day to bring love and peace into the world and to recognize the divine everywhere and in everything. A Sikh doesn't live for himself or herself, but a life dedicated to others."

She said her decision to join the Navy was part of her pursuit of the mission to serve, as well as her fascination with military service. The choice troubled her parents initially, she said. "They were terrified."

Sikhism, she said, has a history of warriors -- but few are women. She said her father had said to her that the military is not a place for women. "He was concerned for his daughter entering a male-dominated field."

She said it surprised her, his opinion, because Sikhism has been such a strong voice for equality between men and women.

"My community always taught me men and women are equal, and equally able to shape their destiny and achieve their dreams," she said.

Today, she said, after six years in the Navy, she's found that other women in the Sikh community have heard that she joined up and have looked to her as a role model -- though that's something she said she didn't plan on being. Even her parents, she said, have come around. "They couldn't be happier," she said of them now.

"Sikhism taught me resilience and perseverance, traits that continue to drive my success today," she said. "To my Sikh brothers and sisters, I urge you to follow your dreams, including those who aspire to protect and serve this beautiful nation. I love this country and I am so proud to serve it. I am a proud American, a faithful Sikh and a fearless warrior. Whatever path you choose, always stand tall for justice and equality."

Two Soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky -- the only two Sikh Solders on the installation, they say -- also attended the Sikh Vaisakhi.

Both Spc. Jagroop S. Aulakh, an infantryman with the 187th Infantry Regiment "Rakkasans," and Spc. Jagraj S. Kooner, an infantryman with the 502nd Infantry Regiment "Strike," attended the event.

Aulakh said he thought that the Pentagon Chaplain Office's hosting of the event symbolized greater acceptance of different faiths in the force.

"They are getting used to, or accepting new religions in the Army," he said. "They let me come here to celebrate ... this festival."

Aulakh said his unit paid for his trip to Washington to attend the event.

Kooner said that visibility of the event will encourage more Sikhs, already with a faith-driven propensity to serve their community, to consider the Army as a way to exercise the service imperative.

"This is going to help more people coming into the Army in the future," Kooner said. "It will help them to join in the future."

Both Aulakh and Kooner say that in addition to the service they provide to their country, as Sikhs they also contribute in other ways -- when they are not out training with their infantry units.

The two do community service, Aulakh said, at their local gurdwara , or temple. "Whenever we get time, we do community service," he said.

Music at the Sikh Vaisakhi was provided by "Sikh Kid to Kid," a Sikh youth organization, as well as by musicians Gagandeep Singh and Jason Singh.