AFSOC Airman first in command to gain Sikh religious accommodation waiver

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Janell Venerable
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

Promoting the core values of loyalty, unity, and selfless service; these are the goals of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA).

On June 7, 2020, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dominic Varriale, a geospatial intelligence analyst with the 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron, became the first member of Air Force Special Operations Command to gain a religious accommodations waiver. He accomplished this by way of the SAVA, who helped guide him through the process from start to finish.

The waiver allows for religious accommodations through wear of the Air Force uniform.

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

In addition to support received from the SAVA, Varriale’s direct leadership assisted him through his journey.

“I was able to inform Senior Airman Varriale that his waiver request had been approved, and that he now had the opportunity to openly exercise his religion,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Lightsey, commander of the 11th SOIS. “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.”

Varriale noted the support of his command when beginning the waiver process, which was initially expected to take up to three years for approval. After the process was reconstructed earlier this year, incorporating new constraints for the waiver, Varriale was able to submit an application directly through his chain of command to be approved by the wing chaplain, which accelerated the process to taking only three months.

"My command has been extremely supportive every step of the way," said Varriale. ”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.”

It was on a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2019 where he learned of the Sikh faith and began his journey. He spoke with converts in the area where he drew from his military service as it relates to Sikh religious objectives of fighting religious extremism and intolerance and strengthening the military by promoting inclusion and fostering a diverse force.

Varriale grew up as a military brat living in Florida, Tennessee and Peru. His father, a U.S. Army warrant officer, served in roles as a medical evacuation pilot and military intelligence for 14 years. Varriale decided early on he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, ultimately committing to an Air Force career as a geospatial intelligence analyst.

Varriale’s focus on research, geography and cultural awareness through his training combined with his personal travels served as inspiration to learn more about religion, leading to finding Sikhism.

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

Updates to Air Force Instruction 36-2903, Dress and personal appearance of Air Force personnel, released Feb. 7, 2020, allow Airmen with approved waivers to wear turbans in colors closely resembling headgear for an assigned uniform and includes guidance on hair and beard wear authorized for religious accomendation as long as they are "neat and conservative."

Varriale is proud not only to serve his country as an American Airman but now also doing so with his faith and religious items intact.

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

The Air Force encourages religious freedoms of service members as one of four pillars of resiliency to help build and sustain a strong and healthy workplace and community. In addition to promoting one’s own well-being and four pillars, respecting others whose viewpoints differ from them is expected from the total force.

“Since being allowed to fully practice his religion, we have observed a significant increase in his morale and work ethic,” Lightsey noted. “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 continuing to improve as an Airman. I expect him to do great things in the future.”