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Air Force Special Operations Approves First Beard, Turban Waiver for Sikh Airman

Jul 31, 2020
by Oriana Pawlyk
In a first for the command, Air Force Special Operations Command has granted a religious accommodation waiver to a Sikh airman.

Senior Airman Dominic Varriale was granted the waiver last month, according to an Air Force release. He serves as a geospatial intelligence analyst with the 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron.

With the help of his command leadership and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), an advocacy organization, Varriale was able to expedite the approval process, which normally takes up to three years, to only three months, the release states.

"The SAVA sent me Air Force Instruction-approved religious articles of faith such as my operational camouflage pattern-colored turban," said Varriale, of Long Branch, New Jersey. "They also made it possible for me to speak to a Gurdwara [a Sikh place of assembly or worship] back in my hometown to get a proper letter of sincerity from a Sikh Temple."

Lt. Col. Brian Lightsey, commander of the 11th SOIS, said Varriale welcomed the news when he found out about the approval June 7.

"His reaction was immediate: It was part relief, part a sense of pride, but most importantly, it was evident to everyone in the room that it meant a great deal to him," Lightsey said. "Senior Airman Varriale was always a capable analyst beforehand, but I sincerely believe the practicing of his faith has provided the extra motivation to hone his craft as a mission analyst and to improve as an airman."

Varriale thanked his command for its support. "My command has been extremely supportive every step of the way," he said in the release. "For a long time, the military had a more 'mind your business' attitude. With recent [diversity-focused] changes, there is a much larger interest in my religion and people are not afraid to ask and learn more."

In February, the Air Force updated its dress and appearance policy, creating a comprehensive process for airmen to request waivers for religious apparel such as hijabs and turbans or facial hair worn for religious reasons. The policy update requires that airmen keep their appearance "neat and conservative."

The Pentagon first released a policy in 2014 outlining how religious service members might apply for a waiver to wear otherwise-prohibited items -- such as a turban, headscarf or beard -- as a way of expressing "sincerely held beliefs." The policy states that such accommodations will be granted on a case-by-case basis and can be denied if the request is seen to interfere with wearing a uniform or helmet, or pose a health or safety hazard.

Since then, the Army has led the services in granting allowances for religious troops. In 2017, it streamlined the process for Muslims and Sikhs to obtain waivers to wear beards, turbans and other religious headgear. While troops are required to receive case-by-case permission at the brigade level, the waivers, once approved, are now permanent throughout the soldier's career.

The Air Force has granted several religious waivers over the years.

Officials said in November 2019 that the service had just approved a sixth airman to receive such a waiver for his Muslim faith. It was granted to Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaita of the 821st Contingency Response Support Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California.

Weeks earlier, Airman Sunjit Rathour graduated Security Forces technical training at Joint Base San Antonio, Lackland, and became the first Sikh airman to secure "full religious accommodation, starting at Basic Military Training through Security Forces Apprentice Course, to wear a turban and remain unshaven in uniform," according to a separate release.

He was also allowed to wear a necklace and bracelet in observation of his Sikh faith, the release added.

Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, an active-duty crew chief at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, was granted the same religious accommodation in accordance with Air Force policy in June 2019. In 2018, the service also allowed Capt. Maysaa Ouza, a Muslim JAG Corps officer represented by the ACLU, to wear a hijab.

The Sikh Coalition, another organization that champions Sikh service members, applauded AFSOC's decision.

"No Sikh American should ever have to choose between their faith and career," the group said. "It's important to see Senior Airman Dominic Varriale become another proof-positive case study that Sikh articles of faith do not pose barriers and another meaningful step toward further ensuring equality of opportunity and religious freedom in the Air Force."

Varriale was introduced to the Sikh faith during a trip to New Orleans last year.

Growing up in a military family led him to join the service; his father was an Army warrant officer, and worked as a medical evacuation pilot and in military intelligence for 14 years.

"The Sikh values and religion are anti-tyranny and anti-oppression," Varriale said. "Good morals are a huge principle within Sikhism, and the Air Force has only doubled-down on it through our core values.

"Nothing I do religiously gets in the way of my job, which is the American way," he said.

* * * * *

Photo caption: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dominic Varriale, a geospatial intelligence analyst with the 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron, poses for a portrait at Hurlburt Field, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joseph P. Leveille)


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