Each morning at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Jaskirat Singh and his fellow male recruits would stand in front of the mirror in the bathrooms, joking around and getting themselves ready for the day.
The only difference, according to Singh? While the other recruits were shaving their faces, he was tying his turban and grooming his beard.
Now a private first class, Singh, 21, has become the first Marine known to have made it through boot camp with his Sikh articles of faith, including unshorn hair and a turban, beard and steel bracelet.
He graduated from the recruit depot Friday, following a legal win in December 2022 in which a federal appeals court agreed that the Corps’ refusal to grant accommodations to him and two other Sikh men violated their rights to religious liberty.
“My personal hope is that today’s events can show other young Sikhs that if they want to pursue a career in the military, they can do so while staying true to their faith,” Singh told reporters Friday following his graduation.
In the Sikh faith, which has a long warrior heritage, men traditionally wear turbans, unshorn hair and beards, and steel bracelets as visible symbols of their beliefs.
The Marine Corps, for the first time, recently allowed Sikh men to wear articles of faith as full-fledged Marines, though not in combat zones, following related litigation involving Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor.
But the Corps had resisted providing those religious accommodations to Sikh recruits while in boot camp.
That made the Marine Corps the only military service that would not let Sikh men go through training with their articles of faith, according to the Sikh Coalition, one of the organizations representing Singh and Toor.
In April 2022, Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal and Aekash Singh filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Marine Corps’ ban on articles of faith in boot camp. Sikh men traditionally all receive the surname Singh, in protest of the caste-based distinctions that different last names historically have signified, according to the Sikh Coalition.
At that point, the men were considered poolees — those who have signed up for the Marine Corps but haven’t yet shipped off to boot camp.
After a Washington, D.C., federal judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the plaintiffs to head to boot camp with articles of faith, the men appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in September 2022.
At oral arguments before a three-judge panel on the appeals court, the Justice Department argued on behalf of the Marine Corps that uniform grooming standards helped instill a shared Marine identity in recruits. Building that shared identity in boot camp helps transform civilians into “combat-ready Marines,” Brian Springer, a Justice Department lawyer, said in an October 2022 oral argument.
Judge Patricia Millett wrote in December 2022 on behalf of the court that the Marine Corps had to accommodate the plaintiff’s articles of faith in boot camp. The Corps doesn’t really have uniform grooming standards, she noted: Women can wear a variety of long hairstyles, men with chronic razor burn can wear short beards and Marines can display unique tattoos.
“[T]he Marine Corps has failed to demonstrate that denying Plaintiffs the same accommodations during boot camp that they would be given during later service in the Corps is the ‘least restrictive means’ of advancing its interest in developing unit cohesion and a team-oriented mindset,” Millett wrote. “Least restrictive means” is one of the legal standards the government must meet for it to be allowed to burden someone’s religious exercise.
A lower-court judge in April laid out in a preliminary injunction how the grooming accommodations would work for Jaskirat Singh. By that point, Chahal had contracted to join the Washington Army National Guard, and Aekash Singh was hoping to attend the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
In the camouflage combat utility uniform, the typical attire for Marine recruits, Jaskirat Singh had to wear a cloth patka or parna, more informal versions of the Sikh turban.
In his service uniform and dress blue uniform, he had to wear a dark green or white turban, respectively — matching the colors of the hats, known as covers, that otherwise go with those uniforms.
During swimming, Singh could wear a black swim cap, according to the judge’s injunction. The steel bracelet was authorized except when it posed a risk to others, like during martial arts training.
The recruits who trained alongside Singh did ask questions about his turban, the private first class said Friday. But he said he didn’t mind providing the answers.
“They were pretty much like, ‘Yo, that’s pretty cool. That’s dope,’” Singh said. “They’re very supportive of ... the diversity coming into the Marine Corps now.”
The drill instructors didn’t pick on him in particular, Singh said: They gave him “incentive training,” extra physical exercises, no more than other recruits.
He said he was able to make it through the tear gas chamber with his gas mask sealed. Despite the beard, according to Singh, it was “pretty easy.”
Brian Song of BakerHostetler, one of Singh’s attorneys, emphasized his client was speaking for himself and not for the Defense Department.
Marine spokesman Maj. Joshua Pena said Monday in a statement to Marine Corps Times that Marine Training and Education Command congratulates Singh and his battalion on their recent graduation.
“He graduated as a squad leader in his platoon, which speaks to his dedication and leadership during his time in the period of instruction,” Pena said of Singh. “We wish him the best as he continues to his follow-on training at the School of Infantry.”
Giselle Klapper, an attorney with the Sikh Coalition, said her organization is pushing for the Marine Corps to make a policy change, so that the next Sikh man who wants to become a Marine can secure a religious accommodation without having to go to court.
The Sikh Coalition is continuing to advocate for fewer restrictions on where Toor, the Marine captain, and now Singh can wear their articles of faith, according to its news release Friday.
“I’m proud to demonstrate that wearing a turban or a beard does not make me any different or less of a Marine, and I intend to prove that in the future,” Singh said.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.