ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
U.S. Army Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan is making history. This week, Captain Rattan completed his nine-week basic officer training course at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He is an American Sikh. He was born in India, he came to New York as a teenager, studied engineering and then dentistry.
The historic part is this: Sikhs used to serve in the U.S. Army while observing their religions requirements for uncut hair, beards and turbans. They enjoyed an exemption. In 1984, the Army eliminated that exemption and now, after much advocacy from the Sikh community, the Army has relented for him and for a fellow Sikh who will be trained as a medic this summer.
And Captain Rattan joins us now from Fort Sam Houston. First, congratulations on your course being completed.
Captain TEJDEEP SINGH RATTAN (U.S. Army): Thank you, sir.
SIEGEL: How does it feel to be the first American Sikh officer in a quarter of a century?
Capt. RATTAN: Oh, its - it was definitely a very humbling experience. I have a lot of responsibilities on my shoulder, not even as a soldier, but as a Sikh.
SIEGEL: How would you describe the reactions of your fellow soldiers in training in Texas?
Capt. RATTAN: They've been obviously very curious because they have not seen any Sikhs serving in the military, so a lot of questions have been asked. And I definitely have a good opportunity to explain myself, to educate my fellow soldiers and, you know, I don't forget the fact that these soldiers, theyre officers and they come from different backgrounds. They're very educated. So they're more than willing to listen to me, and they are very supportive of the fact that a Sikh is serving with them. So, I'm very proud.
SIEGEL: But has anyone just assumed that you're on some exchange program with the Indian army and not really an American?
Capt. RATTAN: Sure, assumptions are there, but when they see me wearing an American flag on my uniform, they obviously are very curious and they come up and ask me questions.
SIEGEL: The fatigues are easily accommodated here, the headgear not so. That was what was very much at issue back in the '80s, the religious headgear. So, you wear a turban, under which I gather you - all Sikhs have quite a head of hair, you don't believe in cutting hair. How have they made the turban military in this case?
Capt. RATTAN: Okay, so I have a turban which is fatigue color and also, in order for me to accommodate the helmet, I put something called as a mini turban, which is also referred to as patka in India. So I put that on and the helmet just fits on top of it.
SIEGEL: There is, obviously, in India there obviously are accommodations made for Sikh officers. You're not without any models here to follow in how one should have a helmet on over the turban.
Capt. RATTAN: That's right, sir.
SIEGEL: Why? Why did you want so much to be an Army officer, knowing indeed that, you know, the Army had not been eager to have observant Sikhs there for some years.
Capt. RATTAN: Yes, sir. It's been my dream. I always wanted to do it, and being in one of the best countries in the world, there are great opportunities. And for me, the reason I wanted to do it was I was educated here. I made friends here. I have my life here. You can always pay back a little bit. And the way you can pay is to serve. It not even gets you the recognition, you know, being a Sikh, it gave me an opportunity to be who I was, a (unintelligible) soldier. So I'm an American soldier now.
SIEGEL: Well, congratulations.
Capt. RATTAN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's U.S. Army Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan. He has qualified as the first American Sikh officer in the U.S. Army in 25 years.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.