MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Alabama –
The Air Force has granted religious accommodations for Air Force ROTC’s first Sikh cadet.
Cadet Gursharan Virk, a sophomore information assurance major at Detachment 255 at the University of Iowa, is now allowed to wear Sikhism ceremonial accessories and abide by the religion’s grooming standards, which includes wearing a turban, necklace and bracelet, while having an uncut beard, in observation of his faith.
“Historically, the motive behind wearing the turban was that if anyone needed help and they saw someone wearing a turban in a crowd, they knew that they would be helped by that Sikh,” Virk explained. “Knowing this, Sikhs consider the turban their crown and wear it with pride. Thus, being able to take that age-old heritage and pride into the Air Force with me while also being able to work toward my dream of being a pilot means the world to me.”
While not a religious leader, Virk does adhere to Sikh religious rules such as not shaving and wearing his turban in place of typical military headwear. Desiring to continue observing his religious beliefs while serving, Virk submitted an official request for religious accommodation to Air Education and Training Command’s Manpower, Personnel and Services office, which was approved in December 2021.
"Air force ROTC is in the business of discovering, developing and showcasing talent,” said Col. Corey Ramsby, commander, Headquarters AFROTC. “Cadet Virk is just the latest example of the shift in our culture that has allowed us to open that aperture wider than we ever have before."
Virk struggled for a few semesters to get medically cleared for ROTC, with most of his medical documents still in India. He was born in the United States but lived in India until his junior year in high school, moving back to the states in 2018.
Regarded as a leader within the detachment, Virk’s performance as a cadet has resonated with his AFROTC leadership team. He has been selected to go to AFROTC Field Training at Maxwell Air Force Base this summer, a critical step to commissioning as an officer.
“Cadet Virk has stood out from day one with his attitude. He always maintains a cheery disposition, is eager to learn and grow and pushes those around him as far as moral is concerned,” said Capt. Amanda Anderson-Gonzalez, a recruiting and admissions officer for Det. 255. “When he makes mistakes, he owns them, works hard to correct them and doesn’t make the same mistake again. He is kind, encouraging, involved on campus and highly involved with the detachment. He has always maintained professionalism and throws himself into everything he does, earning him a spot firmly in the top 10 percent of our detachment.”
Virk’s desire to serve in the military stems from his father, who retired as a colonel from the Indian army.
“Living that military lifestyle has always been something that I loved,” Virk said. “I have seen him in a number of leadership positions, and he has been one of my biggest influencers of what a good leader looks like. I remember him telling me that whatever you do in life, always take care of the people you lead and never let them down.”
If he makes it through college and ROTC, he will become the first Air Force officer to commission through the program having been granted Sikh religious accommodations.
“Knowing that I do not have to compromise on my faith or my dreams highly motivates me to work harder and do the best that I can,” Virk said. “Not many are lucky enough to get this opportunity to show the world that if you want something and you work to make it happen, nothing is impossible. Also, being able to wear a turban with my uniform gives a message to the next generation of American citizens who might be in a similar position as me. Our country provides equal opportunity to all, and it is hard work that pays. No one should have to give up on their dreams for any reason.”
Airmen can seek guidance or clarification on any religious freedom or accommodation questions through their chain of command, wing chaplain or Equal Opportunity Office. AFROTC cadets can route questions through their detachment leadership.