When Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi first expressed interest in joining the U.S. Army, he made it clear he was a Sikh and would keep his turban and beard during his service.
He was told "No problem."
Kalsi, then a medical school student, spent two years fielding paperwork from the Army regarding the turban and beard he maintains as part of Sikhism, an Indian-born religion.
"But, to their credit, they said, 'We will put in a letter on your behalf supporting your wear,'" Kalsi recalled.
He shared his experience leading up to his time as an emergency medicine physician in the army, as well as his nearly three years in Afghanistan, with the Rotary Club of Briarcliff Manor on Friday.
When Kalsi joined the army, he was first turbaned Sikh to serve in about 30 years.
Rotary Club President Krishnan Chittur said he connected with now Maj. Kalsi at an Indian-American event and invited him to address the Rotary.
"After 9/11, we were all subjected to a lot of misinformation about Sikhism," Chittur said, pointing out that stereotypes equating turbans with terrorism can lead to deadly actions.
Kalsi, however, said he did not experience any sort of prejudice while serving in Afghanistan, where he treated U.S. soldiers and civilians alike.
But his religious beliefs were not the only reason Chittur and his fellow Rotarians took a strong interest in Kalsi's presentation.
"You rarely get to see firsthand someone who was in the battlefield in the flesh and blood," Chittur said.
After warning the group not to photograph a slide show he shared depicting his base and work in Afghanistan, Kalsi shared intimate details about his work—including footage of U.S. Army medics attempting to revive a wounded soldier and of a mine explosion while army vehicles are in transit.
Chittur said he was chilled by "the magnitude" of the footage Kalsi shared.
Since his time joining the army, Kalsi has earned a Bronze Star Medal, the fourth highest combat award in the Armed Forces and has seen two more Sikhs join after him.
When Rotarians inquired as to whether his precedent has made it easier for more Sikhs to join with their turbans, Kalsi said that while it may not take as long as the process he underwent, there are still significant obstacles.
"There is still a fair amount of paperwork," he said. "We are pushing for a policy change."