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IOWA CITY — In the Sikh faith — centered on concepts of oneness, love and service — wearing a turban symbolizes a person’s commitment to those values, including helping others.
Among U.S. Air Force values is “service before self” and a “promise to protect,” putting it in line with the religion that’s shaped University of Iowa junior Gursharan Virk’s character, culture and career ambitions.
So Virk, 22, was somewhat surprised to recently discover he was the first Sikh Air Force cadet in U.S. history to receive a waiver to wear his traditional turban, beard and bracelet while in uniform. The waiver was granted nearly two years ago.
“We had no idea,” Virk told The Gazette. “I found out this April 2022 that I'm the first.”
The Sikh Coalition, a New York City-based nonprofit advocacy group, estimates about 100 openly practicing Sikhs are enlisted in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
And though Virk didn’t set out to be a trailblazer in wearing Sikh garb while in uniform, he’s happy to have opened that door and to serve as public proof of the possibility.
“I think it gives people confidence,” Virk said. “It's hard to take a step and ask for something. But if you see someone else have it, it's much easier to ask.”
‘It’s very possible’
As a Waukee High School graduate in 2020 — bound for the UI with aspirations to fly and a hope the Air Force would propel him — Virk said he had to seek a uniform waiver, given that deserting his Sikh attire would have been a deal-breaker.
UI Air Force ROTC officers didn’t flinch.
“They said, ‘Yeah, we can apply for it,” ’ Virk said. “It’s very possible to get one.”
The Air Force chaplain and legal authorities had to review the request, and UI administrators took care of much of the tedious application work — although they left the heart of the argument to Virk.
“I had to write a letter about why it's important to me, what it means to me, what it means to my religion,” he said. “And I had to send a picture of myself in a turban with a beard.”
What it means, he told The Gazette, runs through his character’s core, back to his childhood as the son of a member of the Indian Army and a boarding school student in the prestigious Lawrence School, Sanawar, in the Himalayan hills of India.
“Sikhism is all about humanity and helping those in need and helping those who ask for help and looking out for people,” he said, calling the turban a symbol of that commitment.
“It's pretty easy to spot a person wearing a turban in a crowd. And so, if you need help and you see a Sikh in a crowd and you ask for help, as a Sikh, if you're wearing a turban, it comes with a kind of responsibility. … It's your responsibility to help.”
Peers at his boarding school, which he attended from age 11 to 16, represented several faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. But Virk said he can’t recall a time in his life when Sikhism hadn’t been his anchor and guide.
“Since I was a kid, it has been a part of my identity,” he said. “I've been wearing my turban for as long as I can remember. “
While he couldn’t wear a beard as a child, Virk does today to represent “staying grounded and humble.”
The third piece of Sikh attire covered by the uniform waiver was his “kara,” a bracelet reminding him of the circuitous nature of the human experience.
“It's round,” he said. “It says that what goes around comes around.”
‘It shaped me’
Although Virk is Indian and spent most of his formative years there, he was born in Des Moines — where his mother’s family lived while his father was away with the army. Before age 1, his mother moved him back to Chandigarh, the capital of India’s Punjab state.
And Virk’s parents were set on sending him to the Lawrence boarding school — with its history of military training — given his father went there and “absolutely loved it.”
“He had friends from boarding school, and he wanted me to experience that,” Virk said.
And he did.
“Initially, I was a little scared about it,” he said. “But then, I thank them now for sending me because, honestly, it shaped me. It was one of the best times of my life.”
Still, he aspired to pursue higher education in the United States, and his family thought coming over a few years before college would give him time to adjust culturally.
So he moved to the United States for his junior year in high school in the fall of 2018 and applied to a slew of colleges — including the UI, Iowa State University, several in the University of California system, Penn State University, Georgia Tech, New York University and Yale.
“I did not get into Yale,” Virk said — although he was admitted to many others, including UCLA and Penn State.
“Iowa was offering me the best scholarships,” he said, noting the prestige of UI’s computer science program and his interest in majoring in bioinformatics, which uses computer technology to analyze DNA and other biological data.
Among Virk’s career ambitions was to become a pilot.
“I've always wanted to fly,” he said. “That's something I've had since I was a kid.”
So when a friend in Iowa State’s ROTC detachment brought up the Air Force concept, Virk looked into it.
‘Shift in our culture’
Because freshmen don’t immediately don a uniform, Virk joined his tight-knit class of seven ROTC cadets in performing the responsibilities and rites before receiving his Sikh-specific accommodations. The waiver, he said, came around the time he received medical clearance to put on the Air Force blues and other official attire.
With the uniform barrier broken and his pursuit of Air Force flying unencumbered, Virk has thrived — serving in leadership roles, recruitment endeavors and recently contracting to become a first lieutenant after college graduation.
He’s also been taking flying lessons for a year, and when his class recently traveled to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., for training, he was one of four in that group to rank in the top 10 percent among nearly 1,600 cadets.
“Cadet Virk is one of our most outgoing, energetic and passionate cadets,” Lt. Col. Matthew Youmans, an aerospace studies professor leading UI’s Air Force ROTC, told The Gazette. “He stands out in his professionalism as well as his uplifting and positive attitude. Our mission at Air Force ROTC is to develop leaders of character for tomorrow’s Air Force and Space Force.
“Cadet Virk is one of those leaders of character we are proud to have at our Detachment and to call a fellow Hawkeye.”
Outside his ROTC duties and classes, Virk works with the ITS Help Desk and is actively involved in the UI Veterans Association; Iowa Veteran Education, Transition, and Support group; Indian Student Association; South Asian Student Association; and Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.
He’s an On Iowa! leader and ROTC flight commander, helping first-year cadets acclimate to campus.
“The best part of my college life for me is just to be able to be a part of these amazing things and their causes, while also making relationships with new people,” he shared on his LinkedIn page.
Although Virk didn’t set out to embody the changing U.S. military, which in recent years has grown more accommodating of different religious beliefs and identities, he showcases the benefit of doing so — in its development of diverse talent.
“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,” Col. Corey Ramsby, the commander overseeing the nation’s Air Force ROTC, told the UI Office of Strategic Communication.
At the recent Hawkeye home football game against the University of Nevada, the military’s acceptance of Virk and others like him was on display during the national anthem, when he joined a peer in hoisting the Iowa and U.S. flags on the 50-yard line.
Virk, in his navy turban to match his Air Force blues, held the stars and stripes — representing on multiple levels the values that developed his identity and are shaping his future.
“The fact that Cadet Virk was the first Sikh cadet to be granted an accommodation request, and that he is a key part of an outstanding group of cadets from the University of Iowa, Coe College, and Kirkwood Community College, is a testament to this generation’s passion to serve in defense of our country,” Lt. Col. Youmans said.
“Our country faces many diverse challenges,” he said. “In order to overcome those challenges, we need leaders from all walks of life who want to serve their country and make a positive impact in our world.
“Cadet Virk is one of those leaders.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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