I recall that when I joined the Army, one of the very first realities of Army life was that I could not have a beard. Now granted, with my genetic background, I could not really grow a beard of any substance. In fact, I took advantage of the privilege of being able to have a mustache as soon as I finished Basic Training. In truth, it really didn’t work for me, but I still kept that affectation for 30 years until recently I decided to ditch it for a much younger looking clean shaven styling.
Thus I was surprised when I read this article where it looks as if the Army has decided to relax the beard restrictions based on ‘sincerely held religious beliefs. The examples cited point specifically to Sikhs with beards and turbans
and conservative Muslim women with hijabs.
The article is slightly disingenuous. Sikhs have been able to wear beards and turbans since 2010. The change in the rules really just moves the authority to authorize alternate styles down to the unit commander. No, the real change not highlighted here is the ability of conservative Muslim women to wear hijabs; something that has never been granted before. It remains to be seen if the regulation change will allow women to go full beekeeper suit (burka) or not. It seems to be a breach is security for soldiers to not be able to see the faces of their fellow soldiers. I am not sure what role a conservative Muslim woman can fulfill in the service where they are restricted from being seen in public without their spouse, but I really could care less what they wear.
That being said, I had to do some googling on the beard thing. I recalled that there was some logical explanation for why we had to shave, but I couldn’t recall the context. It turns out that we had to shave because the gas masks of that era would not seal properly if you had a beard. The regulation can into effect about the time of the Vietnam War, which makes sense as that is when those masks were put into service. I remember having to lug those mask around everywhere with me. They were a major pain, and I’d bet they were probably the most often lost piece of field gear ever. Here’s what they looked like:
Here’s what a modern gas mask looks like:
Frankly, I don’t see much a difference between the old and the new around the area where the masks seals at the bottom of the face where a beard would be grown. I suspect these mask were not designed to accommodate a person wearing a beard. I wonder if in the event of a gas attach, beard wearing soldiers will be required to quickly shave, then don their masks. Either that, or they are assumed an acceptable casualty loss. Alternatively, they will be issues ‘beard friendly’ MOPP gear. In that case, the Army will have to stock the type of masks that works with a beard.
Another question is just where the ‘sincerely held belief’ line stops. I mean these guys:
wear beards and, as anyone knows who watches the show, are deeply religious, and have very strong feelings about men wearing beards. In their culture, it is almost the norm and men who are clean shaven are viewed with suspicion. Will the new Army regulations take their sincerely held beliefs into account? Probably not, but of course they are not the demographic these changes are targeted by.