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Sikh cadet breaks barriers in University of Iowa ROTC Air Force

With help from University of Iowa's Air Force ROTC Detachment 255, Cadet Gursharan Virk is allowed to honor his religion and serve his country.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Gursharan Virk said he's always dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force — but he was scared that he'd be faced with a choice between following his Sikh religious beliefs or his Air Force dreams.

With help from the University of Iowa's Air Force ROTC Detachment 255, Cadet Virk is allowed to live the best of both worlds. 

"I always knew I wanted to fly. So, I found out about the program, and I was like, 'You know what, I'm gonna try for it,'" Virk said.

He said that when he reached out the university's Air Force Cadet Program, he feared traditional religious attire — a turban and a bracelet called kara — wouldn't be accepted while wearing his combat boots and uniform. 

"The Air Force doesn't really allow a beard and any head gear," Virk said. 

Luckily for Virk, the university's Air Force ROTC Detachment 255 found his reasons for uniform accommodations worthy of further consideration. 

"They were like, you know, we have a waiver process that we can go through. And let's see how that goes," he said. 

Col. Matthew Youmans said the Air Force ROTC tries to allow religious accommodations when possible. 

"If somebody is driven, they're patriotic, they're trying hard. The default answer shouldn't be 'No, no, thank you,' just because they're a different religion than what maybe the standard air force person was in the past," Youmans said. "But now it's 'How do we start with yes and stay [saying] yes and keep them in."

Virk said that, by the Air Force Cadet Program accepting a large piece of who he is, it opens the door for others to feel comfortable to answer their nation's call.

"I've always been proud when I wear my turban. And it's just been, it is something it is basically a part of me," he said. "When I'm in uniform and I'm wearing my turban, it gives other people who might be in the same position as me confidence."

Virk is not the first openly-practicing Sikh enlisted military member. According to the Sikh coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for religious parity, there are currently an estimated 100 Sikhs enlisted in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

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