A soldier serving in Afghanistan with the Nevada Army Guard has been granted a religious accommodation to grow a beard in accordance with a Norse pagan faith that traces its origins to Scandinavia.
Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper, a 34-year-old Alabama native and member of the Nevada Army Guard’s 3665th Ordnance Company, was granted the waiver following a lengthy review process that concluded with the Army’s acknowledgement of his sincerity as a heathen.
Hopper’s exemption is the latest example of the military’s effort — most notably the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force — to acknowledge the diverse religious practices represented in its ranks.
The first such accommodation came in 2017 following years of beard-exemption requests and legal pressure from Sikh soldiers seeking to preserve religious traditions while wearing a U.S. uniform. Then, in November 2018, Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan became the first Muslim airman to be granted the exemption in observance of the tenets of his faith.
Because the 2017 directive is technically applicable to all religions, final judgement is often left to individual leadership to discern authentic exemption request from insincere.
Further blurring the beard waiver criteria is that while Norse paganism encourages the growth of a beard, or “skegg,” the religion doesn’t require it.
The Open Halls Project, an advocacy group for heathens serving in the military, sought to clarify any existing confusion in a 2017 post about beard exemptions.
“There is no religious requirement for beards in Heathenry,” the post read. “Sikhs are allowed to wear beards and turbans because it actually is a religious requirement of their faith that they do so. Kesh, or ‘uncut hair’ is one of the five religious requirements of baptized Sikhs. We, as Heathens, have no such religious requirement with regards to hair.”
No matter the religious requirements, the Army interpreted Hopper’s request as genuine.
“My personal faith is deeply tied to the modern warrior lifestyle that I have been able to live during my military career,” said Hopper, adding that the beard has never hindered his ability to put mission first.
“In short, it is honoring the pillars of heathenism, our ancestors and ancient gods and way of life.”
Hopper, like service members who have sought exemptions before, was advised to meet with a chaplain to present his case. Chaplains cannot officially approve or deny requests, but recommendations based on perceived sincerity can be made on the service member’s behalf.
“The chaplain corps will work with any military member to aid them in a genuine pursuit of an accommodation,” Joint Force State Chaplain Maj. Donald Crandell said. “However, we are not actively promoting a trend in this direction or seeking to normalize it.”
But a trend, as minimal as it may be, has certainly been stirring among the rank-and-file.
The already-growing list of religious exemption requests inflated earlier this year when Spc. John Hoskins applied for a beard exemption as part of his proclaimed devotion to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a faith also known as “Pastafarianism.”
“This request is based on my deeply and sincerely held belief in the Pastafarian faith,” Hoskins wrote in his request to the Army. “It is my personally held belief that growing a beard will bring me closer to my God and bring me into his favor.”
This time the Army declined, but only after Hoskins’ request made it all the way to the desk of a deputy chief of staff.
“The Army takes pride in sustaining a culture where all personnel are treated with dignity and respect and not discriminated against based on race, color, religion, gender and national origin,” Cathy Brown Vandermaarel, an Army spokeswoman, told Army Times when asked about the decision to deny Hoskins’ request.
“While we cannot speak to the specifics of any particular case, religious accommodation can be disapproved if it is determined that the request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief or if the accommodation would create a specific hazard that cannot be reasonably mitigated.”
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Hopper keeps his waiver on him at all times in case any superiors question the facial feature he refers to as a “sacred and defining feature of masculine men.” Regulations specify a beard can be no longer than 2 inches in length.
“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,” he said in the release. “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.”
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.