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Nevada National Guard makes accommodations for religious beliefs

Nevada Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper. Nevada National Guard photo.
Nevada Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper. Nevada National Guard photo.(KOLO)
Published: Dec. 28, 2019 at 4:00 PM PST
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When the Nevada Army Guard’s 3665th Ordnance Company mustered for the final time last summer before departing for Afghanistan, it looked identical to other Nevada Army Guard assemblies, with one difference. Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper had a full, reddish-brown beard.

Hopper, who’s been in Afghanistan for more than two months and still has his beard, is the first Nevada Army Guard Soldier to receive a religious accommodation approval for a beard. A religious accommodation in the Army allows for an exception of regulation in the wear of the uniform or personal grooming. The U.S. Air Force has a similar exception.

Hopper requested the accommodation based upon his Norse Pagan beliefs, rooted in Scandinavia. Norse pagans may choose to have the Hammer of Thor emblem placed on their Veterans Administration-issued headstones and markers.

As military regulations and policies about religious tenets evolve, it’s likely visible signs of religious accommodation – including beards and the wear of a hijab, headscarf, turban or patka with uncut beard and uncut hair – will increase in the Nevada Guard’s ranks.

The Nevada Guard Chaplain’s Office reported two other pagans are seeking waivers to wear beards. Their requests will be reviewed by Brig. Gen. Ondra Berry by mid-February.

Senior Master Sgt. Laura Magee wore a hijab with her Air Force uniform in 2017-2018, but she currently wears standard Air Force head gear. Personnel offices for the Nevada army and air guards said four soldiers and four airmen declare pagan as their religious beliefs.

Hopper, 34, of Madison, Alabama, said he practised Norse pagan faith for about two decades and he noted his beliefs complement the Army Warrior ethos. He cited documents on the Norse beards that beards are seen as a sacred and defining feature of masculinity. He carries the memorandum for record approving his beard as he works on explosive ordnance disposal missions across southern Afghanistan should anyone question his facial hair.

“My personal faith is deeply tied to the modern warrior lifestyle that I have been able to live during my military career,” Hopper said. “In short, it is honoring the pillars of Heathenism, our ancestors and ancient Gods and way of life.”

Hopper said his beard led to several inquiries while he’s been deployed

“I’ve been brought before some fairly high-ranking individuals to explain the situation as it is a newer process in the Army,” Hopper said. “Once I present my memorandum for record and cite all of the applicable regulations and directives, the focus on the beard tends to go away, for the most part.

“I see it as a phase very similar to when the Army authorized the wear of black socks during the fitness test. It is something new and authorized and you will always encounter people who do not like change – that is just life.”

Hopper said a memorandum from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense dated March 27, 2017, that included pagans as a recognized faith group increased his desire for a religious accommodation. That same memorandum also recognized and gave new religious preference codes to more than 100 other faith groups, including Sikhs and Muslims, two religious groups often associated with religious accommodation. Adult Sikh males are required to wear beards and conservative Muslim women must wear head coverings under the tenets of their faith. (The Nevada Guard currently has eight soldiers and three airmen who list Islam as their religious preference, according to the respective personnel offices.)

Upon the release of the memorandum, Hopper realized he was now in a recognized faith group and could begin his pursuit of the religious accommodation of a beard. Pursuant to Army Directive 2016-34, he began his request for waiver to a grooming policy with a written request to his commander. The request eventually wound its way to then-Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, who was the first General Court-Martial Convening Authority officer in Hopper’s chain-of-command and was the approving authority.

Current requests for religious accommodation will be determined by Berry regardless if the Nevada Guardsman is deployed or stateside.

An additional stipulation Hopper met and is required by other religious accommodation pursuers is an interview with a chaplain to determine the religious basis and sincerity of the request. The chaplain is not required to recommend approval or disapproval, but he or she may do so.

A legal advisor will review the request packet and may make a recommendation on the request to the GCMCA officer. A complete waiver packet includes the individual’s written request, the chaplain’s interview memorandum, the legal review and recommendations from the chain of command.

The U.S. Army’s statement that it will approve requests for religious accommodation whenever possible surprises many.

“The Army will approve requests for accommodation of religious practices, unless accommodation will adversely affect military necessity, including unit readiness, individual readiness, and health and/or safety for soldiers and units,” states All Army Activities message No. 002/2019.

Joint Force State Chaplain Maj. Donald Crandell said his staff is glad to help soldiers and Airmen with sincere requests for accommodation. He underscored his opinion that religious accommodation should remain an extraordinary step to denote faith or belief while on military duty.

“However, we are not actively promoting a trend in this direction or seeking to normalize it,” Crandell said.

Although most of the world’s armies, including Canada’s, are allowed facial hair, the U.S. Army orders its troops to remain clean shaven and is reluctant to allow beards because “beard growth consistently degrades the protection factor provided by the protective masks currently in the Army inventory” according to ALARACT 002/2019. Even with his memorandum for record, Hopper’s accommodation could be suspended by his local commander should the threat of toxic exposure occur in Afghanistan.

In a similar vein, soldiers and airmen who receive accommodation for religious headgear must still wear all required protective headgear.

The regulations for beards are spelled out in AR-670. Basically, beards must be groomed and professional in appearance and the length of the beard hair will not exceed 2 inches.

“I have had absolutely no hindrance to my professional performance or accomplishment of the mission due to my beard while deployed in Afghanistan,” Hopper said. “I do get up a little earlier than others to make sure it is in accordance with AR 670-1, but that is about it.”

For information concerning religious accommodation, call 775-887-7234.

Editor's note: Nevada Guard Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka submitted this article to news media for publication.
Copyright KOLO-TV 2019

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