US Air Force permits Sikh cadet to serve ROTC with turban, beard

Air Force ROTC Cadet Gursharan Virk, third from left, takes part in Detachment 255’s color guard ceremony at a football game at the University of Iowa in 2021. Virk is the first Sikh ROTC cadet to be granted religious accommodations by the Air Force in observation of his faith. The accommodations include wear of a turban and facial hair. – Photo: Courtesy via USAF website

By Asia Samachar | United States |

The United States Air Force has granted religious accommodations for the first Sikh cadet joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

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, reports the USAF official website.

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 Headquarters AFROTC commander Col. Corey Ramsby. “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.”

But the battle to be able to serve the uniform force while observing the tenets of the Sikh faith is far from over.

In April, a US Marine artillery Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor and three other Sikhs sued the Marine Corps in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, for the corps’s refusal to grant a religious waiver, claiming that it was arbitrary and discriminatory, and violates the constitutional right to free exercise of their religion.

The lawsuit that would allow Sikh recruits to keep beards and wear turbans in boot camp could take “years” to resolve, a federal judge said earlier this month. “These parties here, joined in an effort that will not be resolved for years,” U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said. “That’s the practical reality.”

On his part, Virk was reported to have 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, the report added.

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,” Capt. Amanda Anderson-Gonzalez, a recruiting and admissions officer for Det. 255 was quoted in the report. “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.”

“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.”


Federal judge to decide if Sikhs can keep beards, turbans in US Marine boot camp (Asia Samachar, 1 July 2022)

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