DES MOINES, Iowa — A University of Iowa student is breaking barriers by becoming the first Air Force ROTC cadet to be granted permission to wear traditional Sikh garb as part of his uniform.

Gursharan Virk, a third-year at the University of Iowa studying information assurance, has always wanted to fly, which is why he decided to join the Air Force.

“It was my understanding that there was no better place to fly than with the Air Force,” Virk said.

However, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to continue practicing certain aspects of his faith when he joined. Virk practices Sikhism, and as part of his faith he wears a turban and has a beard. According to the Secretary of the Air Force dress and personal appearance publication, beards and headwear other than military issued headwear are not approved in Air Force uniform regulations.

Virk discovered he could apply for a religious exemption with the Air Education and Training Command’s Manpower, Personnel and Services Office. His request was approved in December 2021.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Virk said. “It was a proud moment for me and my family and friends.”

Sikhism is heavily based on believing in humanity and helping those who need it, which is why the turban is so significant and special in the faith. Historically, turbans were used to signify to others that if they were in need of help, they can receive it from a person wearing a turban.

“For me, when you wear the turban you take on that responsibility,” Virk explained. “So, if someone comes to us for help or we see someone who needs help it’s our responsibility to help them.”

When Virk received the religious accommodation he had no idea that he was the first Sikh cadet to ever receive it.

“I actually found out about being the first in April of this year, so two years after I started,” Virk said.

Despite being the first Sikh cadet to receive the accommodation, Virk doesn’t consider himself to be a trailblazer, but he’s happy knowing that he may help others.

“I’m happy that I was able to do this and give confidence to people who might be in a similar position as me,” Virk said.