Airman 1st Class Andrew Howells of Salt Lake City said the commander complained that the garments, worn by faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, showed through his uniform.
“One of the reasons why I fight is to defend religion and freedom,” Howells told the church-owned Deseret Morning News. “It’s kind of an irony that the very organization I fight with is denying me that.”
Mormons are instructed to wear the white garments, which are symbolic of purity, at all times and remove them only for very specific activities.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, filed an inquiry Wednesday on Howell’s behalf with the Air Force Congressional Liaison Office, spokeswoman Alyson Heyrand said.
A spokesman for the Air Force refused to comment specifically about Howells’ complaint because the incident is under investigation, the News said.
However, the newspaper said an Air Force official said in a written statement that “Religious garments should not be visible while in uniform.”
Howells said the July 18 ultimatum came at an airport in Incirlik, Turkey, just before Howell’s unit boarded a plane to Qatar, Iraq.
He said his commander told him, “(You) have a choice to make: lose the shirt or leave the tour.”
Howells sought help from a Mormon chaplain based in Qatar, who suggested Howells wear a black T-shirt on top of his flak vest and underneath his black polo shirt to hide the undergarment.
Howells said that on stage, his religious undergarments do not show through his costume.
Off the stage, Tops in Blue members must wear a black polo shirt without a T-shirt underneath. Howells said the collar of his religious undergarments barely showed while wearing his black Tops in Blue polo shirt.
Howells said he was happy to compromise but is angry he was berated for his religious principles in front of his unit and strangers at the airport terminal.
A spokesman for the Mormon church declined to comment specifically about Howells’ case but said the church appreciates the military’s ongoing efforts to accommodate the church’s religious practices.
“Church members serving in the military are encouraged to talk with their local church leaders and unit chaplains should they have any questions or concerns,” spokesman Dale Bills said.
Howells will return to Utah this week to serve in his regular career as a public affairs representative for the Utah Air National Guard.