PANEVEZYS, Lithuania, September 30, 2015 —
The language skills of one soldier assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s Dog Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, have helped to build a unique connection between U.S. and Lithuanian service members.
Born and raised in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, U.S. Army Pfc. Aidarbek Raev, a unit supply specialist, grew up speaking Russian, the second-most common language in Lithuania. His journey to the U.S. and eventual enlistment into military service was unexpected, he said.
“Honestly, it wasn’t really planned,” Raev said. “When you grow up in Kyrgyzstan, you’re more orientated to Russia. I was going to go to the Russian economic academy in Moscow, but when I was in my eleventh year my mother said, ‘Do you want to go to the states for a couple years and learn the language?’ I said, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a shot.’”
His mother’s blessing might have been the final push for Raev to journey to the United States, but his constant drive toward self-improvement and continued education is his father’s legacy, he said.
“My dad was always saying, ‘Go to better schools,’” Raev said. “When I was young, he took me out of public school to a private school, which was better for math and science. Around my dinner table, there were always discussions about politics and economics.”
“My dad thought the colleges were better in the [U.S.] than in Kyrgyzstan or in Russia,” Raev said. “It was kind of always intended for me to go to better schools.”
Raev ultimately made it to Texas to study economics, which wasn’t without its challenges.
“My English wasn’t that good, so it took me about three months to get through the language barrier, and up to six months to be really confident speaking, writing and reading in it,” he said. “The hardest part was being away from family and friends at [age] 17.”
Following a couple semesters in Texas, Raev traveled to Philadelphia to pursue a business degree and to be near his parents, who had moved there. During this time, Raev’s father was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“They gave him four months to live,” Raev said. “During those four months, I spent every possible moment with my dad. We would go for walks and talk about life and my future.”
“He said, ‘I sent you here so you can be different and get a better education, but also so you can go back to Kyrgyzstan and make a difference. Would you go back to Kyrgyzstan?’ I said, ‘Dad, since I’ve moved to the states, I’ve changed. My perspectives about the world have changed. If I graduate, it’s going to change even more. I’ll give you an answer when I get my master’s degree,’” he said.
After his father’s passing and a few more years of school, Raev’s path would indeed continue to change. With his student visa nearing its end, military service seemed a viable option.
“I was reading the New York Times, and one of the ads was about a ‘path to U.S. citizenship through military service,’” Raev said. “I started reading about and researching it. I wasn’t eligible at first. There wasn’t a program for people with an international student visa to join the military. I either had to be a resident or a citizen.”
Fluent in Russian, he was able to enlist in the U.S. Army due to the strategic importance of the Russian language.
Raev entered basic training in January 2014, and said he loved it.
“Even after six years of being in the states, it was my first time being exposed to American culture,” he said. “College is one thing, but on a day-to-day basis, being side-by-side with other Americans, I learned that there are a lot of great people -- good people who show that they want to be great.”
Raev’s peers selected him to be a team leader and toward the end of his training he was promoted to squad leader.
“I saw that in the military and in basic training -- no matter where you come from, no matter your religion or ethnicity -- if you have a skill and you’re easy to work with, they’re going to promote you,” he said. “There were other guys who were better than me, but they saw something in me and they pulled me out front to be a leader -- I respect that.”
Following basic and advanced individual training, Raev attended the U.S. Army Airborne School and was eventually assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
Now his company’s supply sergeant -- a duty position three tiers above his pay grade -- Raev’s leaders say he exemplifies outstanding professionalism and discipline.
“Raev is absolutely invaluable to this company,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Steven Siberski, a native of Clearwater, Fla., and a platoon leader in Dog Company. “His language and cultural knowledge really bridges the gap between us and our host nation allies here. What he’s able to do, as far as communicating and establishing relationships and a good working environment, has made Dog Company’s stay here in Lithuania that much better.”
“As far as establishing networks for our sustainment such as food, cleaning supplies, laundry and all the other basic essential things we would need to sustain ourselves here, Raev has done a fantastic job facilitating our needs within the local community,” the lieutenant said.
Raev has now obtained his U.S. citizenship and new doors have opened on his future, however uncertain that future may be.
“I think a lot of people in my position might consider going green to gold,” Raev said. I already have my associate’s degree, and if I were to become an officer, they would help pay for my bachelor’s.”
But, he said, “I’m not sure if I want to stay past my four-year contract, because my family doesn’t really understand why I have to be away all the time. Family is extremely important to me. Am I going to stay in and go green to gold? I don’t know.”
Although Raev may be unsure of his next step, others have no doubt as to his future success.
“I think his potential is limitless,” Siberski said. “What he’s doing right now, as a private, is incredibly impressive. With further progression and development, he could really accomplish anything he wants in the U.S. Army.”