Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Order to remove hijab at Fort Carson spurs controversy, but versions of story differ

Posted By on Tue, Mar 12, 2019 at 12:14 PM

click to enlarge Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos believes that she was discriminated against when a superior officer at Fort Carson ordered her to remove her hijab. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos believes that she was discriminated against when a superior officer at Fort Carson ordered her to remove her hijab.
It was about 3 p.m. on March 6, and Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos’ unit was receiving training in suicide prevention at the chapel on Fort Carson.

Without warning, Valdovinos tells the Independent, Command Sergeant Major Kerstin Montoya grabbed her arm and said, “You come with me.”

Valdovinos followed her to the back of the chapel, where she says Montoya told her to remove “that.” The object at issue was Valdovinos’ hijab, a head scarf worn by Muslim women, for which she had obtained an accommodation letter last year.

Valdovinos did as she was told, but later contacted a member of the Pentagon’s chaplaincy, a colonel who’s Muslim. He told her she shouldn’t have obliged by removing the hijab, and referred her to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

With MRFF involved, run by the high-profile and vociferous Mikey Weinstein, the issue might not die soon, despite Fort Carson officials disputing Valdovinos’ account of what happened that day.

In a statement, the Mountain Post said Army leaders respect soldiers’ right to practice their faith without fear of prejudice or repercussion, but even obtaining an accommodation doesn’t mean they’re not subject to inspection for compliance with Army regulations that specify how a hijab should be worn. Fort Carson officials say that Valdovinos was clearly out of compliance on the day in question; that she wasn’t grabbed, but simply taken aside; and that she was in the presence of two female superiors when she removed the head covering.

Valdovinos denies she violated any regulation.

It wasn’t the first time Valdovinos felt uncomfortable in the Army due to her religion. After being raised in the Catholic Church, and four years after joining the Army out of high school, she converted to Islam.

In August 2017, she was promoted to sergeant and has served two tours in Afghanistan, returning most recently in fall 2018.

In April 2018, she applied for a religious accommodation, which required her to be interviewed extensively by two different chaplains, she says. On June 24, 2018, Col. David Zinn issued a letter that stated, “I approve the wear of a hijab in observance of her faith in the Muslim tradition ... a copy of this approved religious accommodation will be filed in the Army Military Human Resource Record system (AMHRR) and will remain in effect throughout SGT Valdovinos’ career.”

While in Afghanistan, however, a fellow soldier called her “a terrorist.”

“We were supposed to be a team, and it was hostile,” she says. “I was angry, but the girls around me [in my unit] helped me calm down.” Though she says she reported it, nothing came of her report and she felt it was ignored.

About a month ago, Valdovinos says, she objected to handling pork at her job in the dining facility, due to her religious requirements. Initially, her supervisor suggested she wear gloves to handle pork, but later transferred Valdovinos to a supply unit. Valdovinos didn’t file a complaint. Nor did she formally protest after she says others on post referred to her as “the girl with the hood.”

But she did file a complaint with the post’s equal opportunity office on March 7 following the hijab incident, she says. The incident startled Valdovinos. She says when she asked Montoya if she had authority to impose such an order, Montoya said, “I can,” and told her she wanted it removed so she could “see my hair.”

Valdovinos, who stands 4 feet, 11 inches, says she removed the garment partway, but Montoya told her to remove it completely, and she complied. Montoya then told her to “get out of here,” she says.

“I felt naked without it,” she tells the Indy. “It’s like asking you to take off your blouse. It felt like I was getting raped, in a sense.”

Fort Carson officials, however, tell a different version of the story via email. They say soldiers with special accommodations still must meet standards of appearance. The hijab must be worn close to the hair and jaw lines, not covering any part of the face, and the hair cannot be worn down.

“According to sources who were present,” Carson said, “Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was visibly out of regulation. Her senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) [Montoya] and a battalion staff officer, both female, stepped outside with Sgt. Valdovinos so they could speak to her privately. At no time did the senior non-commissioned officer touch Sgt. Valdovinos.”

Another soldier who witnessed Valdovinos being summoned by Montoya tells the Indy that Valdovinos was grabbed by the upper arm. The soldier spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from superiors.

Asked about that, Carson provided a written statement from Cpt. Brooke Smith, who observed the entire incident. She said Montoya tapped Valdovinos on the shoulder, but didn’t grab her.
Smith’s story correlates with Carson officials’ written statement, which states that Montoya asked Valdovinos to remove the hijab “in order to verify whether or not her hair was within regulation” and “discovered that Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was completely down, which is not allowed while in uniform.”

Montoya then told her to “put her hair back in regulation and to not let it happen again,” Carson’s statement said.

Carson also offered a statement by Zinn, who said, in part, “I will ensure our unit continues our tradition of placing a high value on the rights of our Soldiers to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all.”

He also noted there is an inquiry into Valdovinos’ claim.

Valdovinos says that she is upset because for Muslim women, removing the hijab in public isn’t allowed — the Quran dictates that certain parts of a woman’s body, including her hair, are to be seen by her husband only.

MRFF founder Weinstein argues that since Valdovinos had secured a letter of accommodation from her commander, demanding she remove the hijab is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Army regulations. (Carson didn’t respond to this allegation when asked by the Indy.)

“This woman has been spiritually raped,” he says. “This rips asunder good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion.” It also serves up a “public relations bonanza for our Islamic extremist enemies” who wish to paint the war on terror as a war on Islam or a clash of world religions, he claims.

Weinstein commended Valdovinos for coming forward, noting she’s a woman of color — her father is Mexican and her mother, Navajo — and is Muslim. “It took a tremendous amount of courage for her to stand up for herself,” Weinstein says.

Valdovinos says she’s willing to take a lie-detector test in regards to the incident. And she claims that her hair was not out of compliance. “Of course when she made me take off my hijab my hair fell out of the bun it was in,” she says.

She also notes that her accommodation letter doesn’t contain specifications on how her hair is to be pinned.

Weinstein vows to file a complaint with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, as well as seek “just punishment of the Army perpetrators.”

Meanwhile, Valdovinos says she hopes those at her post will come to accept her more fully. “I just want them to understand, just because I’m Muslim, I’m not different. I’m still myself, and I’m still going to fulfill my duty.”

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