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Indigenous Airman celebrates being among first to receive religious hair accommodation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Elora J. McCutcheon
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

For most, the days and hours leading up to their basic military training departure are filled with excitement and anticipation for what’s to come in the next four to six years. For others, the feelings are tainted with fear and anxiety.

For Connor Crawn, the day before he shipped off to boot camp was one of the worst in his life.

The 18-year-old graduated high school only six months earlier as the class of 2020, eager to enlist in the U.S. Air Force but curious about whether he could keep his hair long in accordance with his Kanien'kehà:ka faith.

When Crawn decided to speak to a recruiter his dark, neatly braided hair draped straight down the length of his spine.

For the Kanien'kehà:ka, Crawn explained, keeping the hair long reflects spiritual strength, protection and resilience. Certain styles, like braids, signify even greater strength.

His recruiter took the steps necessary to request a religious accommodation and Crawn went through military entrance processing successfully, but his BMT departure date continued to get pushed as he waited for an answer about his hair.

“I was at the point where I couldn’t wait any longer,” Crawn described of the hurry-up-and-wait process. “I had to get out of my situation.”

Crawn agreed to cut his hair if it meant getting an earlier departure date. He kept his hair long until the last minute, hoping approval would arrive at the last-minute to spare him from the trauma of severing his symbolic strength. He waited, fruitlessly, until the day before he left for BMT.

“My dad and I cut our braids together,” Crawn began, eyes saddening. “I wish I never had to go through that. I felt like a part of me died when I lost my braid.”

Now officially branded as an Airman, the next chapter in Crawn’s life began: BMT and technical training simply became two obstacles to overcome before the fight for accommodation resumed.

In July of 2021, Crawn was stationed at the 341st Missile Wing as part of the security forces group. Before he was even assigned a flight, his priority was visiting the base chapel to begin the request process all over again.

Capt. Trevor Wilson, one of the chaplains on duty at the time of Crawn’s visit, cemented himself as an ally and quickly went to work figuring out the requirements of a process that, just one month earlier, had been introduced to the Department of the Air Force.

The duo spent hours together during that first meeting, poring over instructions, regulations and guidelines for a reality Crawn hoped would soon come to fruition.

According to the process for religious accommodation, as lined out in the DAF Instruction 52-201, the timeline from request to approval was supposed to take no longer than 60 days. Considering the overwhelming number of religious requests being vetted at that time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though, goalposts had to be moved and Crawn’s request would not be approved until October of 2022.

“I knew it was going to take longer than expected,” Crawn explained. “But as the time dragged on, my hope started to waver a little bit. After a year passed, people used to joke that it would be the end of my contract before I heard anything—and honestly, that’s what I was beginning to expect.”

Though the timeline dragged on like a heavy-burdened traveler, Crawn’s case was carefully corralled through coordination by Wilson.

“I know how hard his leadership and the wing worked to get his package up,” Wilson shared. “I had to ensure his request would not get lost or overlooked in the bulk of all that [COVID-19] paperwork. I regularly followed up and tracked his request, because part of my role as the chaplain is to be an advocate.”

Nearly halfway into his contract is when Crawn finally received the good news that he could grow his hair out in accordance with his faith. For him, this was not just a personal win, but a Department of the Air Force-wide win for all his Native brothers.

With the approved accommodation, Crawn was authorized to abide by female standards in DAFI 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance.

“It was incredible,” he chuckled. “I mean, I thought I was dreaming for the next few days. I kept thinking I would wake up and learn it wasn’t real.”

Crawn’s excitement did not end with reception of the news.; immediately after learning about the approved accommodation, the first thing he did was call his family to share. Then, he decided to share with the world.

“My first thought after calling my family was, ‘I gotta let other Native men know that it’s possible,’” Crawn eagerly said, grin widening to meet the corners of his eyes. “I could not find a single person who received a religious accommodation like mine as I was going through the process, so I wanted to put the information out there. It wasn’t until I made a TikTok video about it that I began to hear from other people.”

Crawn’s video went viral, sparking an important conversation for U.S. military members and those interested in joining. His statement served as a spark of hope for a demographic who, previously, was uncertain that their organization would be true to their word.

Through DAFI 52-201, Religious Freedom in the Department of the Air Force, the DAF maintains an environment in which members can realize their highest potential. For Crawn, this environment was established when he felt that the leadership around him was willing to fight for something he cared about deeply.

Wilson, spearhead for Crawn’s request, felt pride to know other Airman would be encouraged to use their voice to be a beacon of change.

“Crawn chose to speak up, to ask for something he believed in, to place trust in the process, and it worked,” Wilson enthused. “The Air Force cannot help if Airmen’s needs are not communicated, and if you share your concerns and requests professionally, you can often get the results you need.”

Col. Barry Little, 341st Missile Wing commander, praised Crawn’s dedication as an example for the direction in which the total force needs to continue moving in the future.

“There has never been a time where what our Airmen do for this country has been so important,” Little emboldened. “Creating an environment of dignity and respect is critical to winning the strategic competition for talent. Our Airmen chose us once; the environment we create must encourage them to choose us again.”

Little’s message, targeted to leaders, is partnered by Crawn’s sentiments to fellow Airmen looking for motivation in times where they may feel defeated by bureaucracy:

“I think it’s all about the person and how much they fight from the start,” he encouraged. “I think that [attitude] really shows your leadership and the people around you how dedicated you are. I never gave up; I never shut up about it to anyone who asked.”

Two years into his career, Airman 1st Class Connor Crawn has some time before needing to decide which direction he prefers the next chapters of his life to go in. Currently, he serves as a convoy team leader with the 341st Missile Security Operations Squadron, and with a recent win in his back pocket, he is optimistic about a future in uniform.

“I might as well stay in, now that I’m able to grow my hair,” Crawn chuckled. “I’m definitely considering it. It’s incredible being able to express my heritage in uniform.”

For more information on diversity and inclusion efforts across the DAF, please visit www.af.mil/Diversity.

If interested in learning how to apply for a religious accommodation, please see DAFI 52-201.