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Face of Defense: Uzbekistan Native Returns to Central Asia

By Air Force Maj. Damien Pickart
Special to American Forces Press Service

MANAS AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan, Nov. 6, 2008 – Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kelman Khersonsky recalls spending summers in his youth as a Pioneer “scout” of the Soviet Union at Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul Lake.

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Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kelman Khersonsky refuels an aircraft over Afghanistan during one of the last refueling missions of his deployment to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, Oct. 29, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo

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It never crossed his mind then that he might one day return to the former Soviet republic as a KC-135 Stratotanker boom operator with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.

“When I first deployed here, I was reminded of my childhood memories from Pioneer summer camp and the mountains,” Khersonsky said. “It was a little surreal the first time we flew over the mountains and I realized how close we were to where I grew up.”

Khersonsky spent his first 13 years growing up in Uzbekistan’s capital city, Tashkent, about 200 miles southwest of here. In search of better opportunities following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Khersonsky family moved to the United States in 1993 and settled in Pittsburgh.

“Growing up in the Soviet Union was much different than in America,” he said. “The education system there was far ahead of the U.S. I learned German in 3rd grade and physics and advanced mathematics in junior high.

“When I came here, I expected to advance to 10th grade, but instead was placed in the 8th grade because I spoke no English,” he said. “Between fights, suspension and trying to fit in as an American teenager, it was a tough transition.”

But one thing Khersonsky said he learned from his family was how to adapt and succeed. The son of a highly educated metallurgist father and chemist mother, Kelman spent a year integrating into America at Pittsburgh’s Frick International Academy before graduating from Allderdice High School in 1998.

While a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he visited the 171st Air Refueling Wing’s base just west of the city and found a new calling.

“It’s kind of ironic, because my mom didn’t want me to join the military while growing up, and after moving to America, I think she was sure it wouldn’t happen,” Khersonsky said. “First time I saw the KC-135, I fell in love and knew that’s what I wanted.”

He was soon turning wrenches on the 50-year-old aircraft as a crew chief. After seven years, Khersonsky cross-trained and became a boom operator, a decision that would lead him back to Central Asia.

“When I heard we were going to Kyrgyzstan – so close to home – I knew I needed to be on this deployment,” he said.

Khersonsky, along with more than 100 Guardsmen and four KC-135s from the 171st ARW, supported daily refueling operations over Afghanistan throughout September and October. The daily missions to the embattled country provided the Uzbek native panoramic views of his childhood stomping grounds and evoked memories.

“Flying over the snow-covered mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, I often thought about summers spent at the Pioneer camp and growing up in Tashkent,” the sergeant said. “Sometimes I thought about a cousin who fought with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and came home with silver hair after narrowly escaping an ambush that killed his entire platoon.”

Khersonsky’s fellow KC-135 crew members have nicknamed him “Cosmonaut.” His journey closely parallels that of his aircraft commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Jorg Kaltenegger, who left Germany when he was 10, joined the 171st ARW as a jet mechanic and then became a pilot.

The commander of the tightly knit crew often notices the sergeant admiring the view.

“Our route takes us within 50 miles of Uzbekistan,” Kaltenegger said. “Sometimes we have fun and let him make the radio calls at our route points. When he rattles off our information in fluent Russian, we always get a pregnant pause from the Russian-speaking controller on the ground before they respond. We’re usually laughing, because we know they weren’t expecting that from an American KC-135 passing overhead.”

Following Kaltenegger’s lead, Khersonsky is working to move from his seat in the back of the Stratotanker to a seat in the cockpit in hopes of piloting the plane he has maintained and crewed for the past nine years.

“When I get home, I plan to graduate from Duquesne University in May and compete for the pilot board in fall 2009,” said the sergeant. “If the timing works out, there’s a small chance I could complete pilot training before the 171st ARW returns to Kyrgyzstan in about 20 months.”

Khersonsky said he’s learned a thing or two living on opposite sides of the world.

“Having grown up in Tashkent and Pittsburgh, and now deploying to Kyrgyzstan, people sometimes think they’re different or have it better than those living in certain faraway places,” he said. “Trying to look at which is better is like comparing apples and oranges; one isn’t necessarily better -- just different.

“It’s hard to say you have it worse off if you’re not aware you’re missing out on something. Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Americans -- we have a lot more in common than we think.”

(Air Force Maj. Damien Pickart serves in the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs Office.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Lt. Col. Jorg Kaltenegger, Tech. Sgt. Kelman Khersonsky and Maj. Scott Rushe are all smiles after completing one of their last refueling missions in support of operations in Afghanistan, Oct. 29, 2008. The three were among more than 100 Pennsylvania Air National Guardsmen deployed from Pittsburgh's 171st Air Refueling Wing. The deployment brought Khersonsky within sight of his childhood home of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ruth Holcomb  
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