The Air Force has granted a religious accommodation beard waiver to a Muslim airman, making him the first Muslim in the Air Force to be allowed to do so as a way to observe his faith.

Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, an airman with the 821st Contingency Response Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California, was granted the exemption after waiting years for approval, an Air Force release said.

Gaitan, who was raised as a Catholic, first developed an interest in the Muslim faith while stationed at an air station in Izmir, Turkey, a curiosity that remained strong when he left for his new duty station in Hawaii.

“When I left Turkey, I felt as if a little bit of myself was left behind,” he said. “I began to read the Quran and the more I learned, the more I was drawn to its teachings."

The airman visited a mosque in Hawaii to explore the faith and ask questions — he converted soon after.

Following his conversion, Gaitan prepared himself for the challenges of being a practicing Muslim in the U.S. military, the greatest of which was attaining approval for his shaving waiver, he said in the release.

Being granted the waiver took nearly four years from the day Gaitan submitted the paperwork, a process that necessitated approval on the part of his “unit commander, base chaplain, installation commander up to the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, Personnel Division,” the release said.

The Army has led the way when it comes to granting religious accommodations. In 2017, the service instituted a new policy to allow the wear of head coverings and beards for observant Muslims and Sikhs. And this April, a soldier received authorization to grow a beard as part of his Norse pagan faith.

Although Gaitan called growing a beard “a constant reminder of our faith and who we are as Muslims,” doing so has not come without oppression — even from the airman’s peers.

“A month after I started growing my beard, someone shooed me away with their hand, saying very negative things because I was a Muslim," he said. "A week later, another person from a different squadron felt comfortable enough to ask me if I had joined ISIS. ... Earlier that year someone openly questioned if I was a terrorist.”

One or two ignorant comments, however, did not represent the majority of airmen who were incredibly supportive of his conversion to Islam, Gaitan said.

“The silver lining to all this was the reaction from my peers when this incident happened,” Gaitan said. “Like a lion jumping to rescue a member of their pack, another airman stood to my defense. I will never forget what she did for the rest of my life.”

After word of the incident climbed the chain of command, Gaitan’s own commander stepped in to offer support as well.

“I was called into his office with the chief and first sergeant waiting for me,” he said. “His look, tone, words and posture were shouting at me, ‘Don’t worry, we have your back.’ ... I walked out of there with a feeling I had never felt as a Hispanic Muslim Airman. I finally felt like I was fully part of the Air Force family, and that my peers and my leadership would fight to protect me.”

Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.

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