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Face of Defense: Soldier Overcomes Difficult Childhood

By Dijon Rolle
U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Wuerttemberg Public Affairs

HEIDELBERG, Germany, Aug. 5, 2010 – While saying Army Spc. Ekaterina Volsky's childhood was difficult is accurate, it doesn't even begin to describe the poverty, abuse and neglect she has overcome in her short lifetime.

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Army Spc. Ekaterina Volsky has overcome several obstacles in her 23 years few would ever imagine. She says her difficult childhood has motivated her to use her talents and time to serve others and to share her story of hope. U.S. Army photo by Dijon Rolle
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The U.S. Army Europe human resources specialist was born near the Ural Mountains in Perm, Russia, 23 years ago. Her birth mother struggled with alcoholism and bouts of mental illness, and eventually committed suicide.

At age 2, Volsky was sent to an overcrowded orphanage where, she said, she was raised primarily by the other residents living there - some only a few years older than she was. And she was abused during her time at the orphanage, she added.

Over the next seven years of her life in Russia, Volsky poured her pain and her passion into the performing arts to escape the hell she faced on a daily basis.

"I grew up just learning how to be focused on music and art. That's how I learned to survive," she said. "I would study singing, poetry and history to try to be as normal as possible."

At age 9, Volksy met Joyce Sterkel, an American woman who later would become her adoptive mother.

As a nurse, Sterkel spent time working with humanitarian organizations in Russia and later founded "Ranch for Kids," a facility in rural Montana specializing in helping children suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, abuse and reactive attachment disorder.

A moratorium on Russian adoptions prevented Sterkel from adopting Volsky at the time.

"I really had no contact with her during that year, but she left some gifts, and that was helpful … when it was time to be adopted and I came to America. It was quite a shock for me," Volsky said.

The family moved to Wyoming before setting up shop in Eureka, Mont., the future home of “Ranch for Kids.”

As she tried to adjust to her new life in the United States, Volsky learned English by watching American television and movies and engaging in conversations with her new friends and family. She also picked up her U.S. citizenship, attended Utah State University, worked as an Americorps volunteer and nurse's aide, and helped out around the ranch.

Volsky and Sterkel returned to the orphanage in 2000 for a visit and to find out more about Volsky's biological family, including the whereabouts of her biological brother. She was told he worked in a factory in Siberia, but the two were not able to connect during her visit.

"It was very heartbreaking and shocking. I couldn't stop crying," Volsky said. "I wanted to bring everyone with me to America because it was so sad to see children that cannot go anywhere. They do not have families, and that's pretty sad to me, because they have to be stuck here."

In 2008, Volsky, with her family’s blessing, decided to take on a new challenge - this time as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Heidelberg is her first duty station.

"I feel very proud and very appreciative, because I can live and serve in a normal country where I do not have to be violated or abused," Volsky said.

"The United States Army is not something that you have to do; we are volunteers here to serve, and that is the greatest opportunity, I think, without looking at the benefits," she added. "But just looking at trying to get out and do something different. I feel very proud."

Volsky does admit there have been some challenges.

"Being in the Army as a soldier from where I come from it is hard, because I have to learn to adapt in a different way from how I used to be, and I think most people have that," she said. "A lot of soldiers who have family members in the military can kind of grasp what it's like, because they've been around military people, but for me I have to take an extra step, ask questions, and find my way. "[I have to] learn much more to get to where I want to be."

Volsky's supervisor, Army Sgt. Amanda Jordan, said she's definitely on the right track.

"She is highly motivated. She does things with little to no guidance, and she's a person that I would go to as my right-hand man," Jordan said.

"It's pretty amazing she is where she is now,” she continued, “knowing where she came from and that she's had such a hard life. I just think that she is such a great person. She's one person that you can learn from, … and now to be so happy and to be where she is now, she's also a person to look up to."

In her free time, Volsky enjoys singing, dancing, drawing, playing the piano, and performing community service, which she often does as a member of Heidelberg's Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program.

"Specialist Volsky is a person that you can truly see has a servant heart and tries very hard to ensure others are taken care of," said BOSS president Army Spc. William Perkins. "She sets the example for others."

Another passion Volsky has is acting, and she had the opportunity to hone her chops with a part in a commercial for USAREUR's diversity campaign that aired on American Forces Network. Most viewers will recognize her from her memorable delivery of the line "I am USAREUR."

Volsky admitted she was a little surprised by the attention she has received after the commercial began airing.

"At first I wasn't used to it, and it was a little much for me, but then I went on autopilot and so it doesn't bother me at all. Sometimes I even laugh. It's good that people recognize it," she said.

Despite the struggles she's overcome and the many different activities and hobbies that now consume her schedule, Volsky said there is one thing that remains a constant quest in her life.

"I really enjoy community service, and I really enjoy meeting people and communicating,” she said. “I've found when I help other people, I am helping myself. I know that I'm going to make a difference, and when I can make people smile, that's one thing that I appreciate about the talents and the gifts that I have. I am able to share them and to give something in return."

These days, Volsky continues to weather the stormy seas of life while helping to raise others up to stand on the mountains she was able to conquer years ago in a Russian orphanage.

"There's always a bright side to a challenge. That's one of the things my mom has always said. Without the bad, there could be no good," Volsky said. "We are just human beings, and we have to strive forward no matter what, and that's why I'm here."

In October, Volsky will head to Washington, D.C., to compete in the U.S. Army 10-Miler. She was one of four runners from Heidelberg to earn a spot on the U.S. Army Europe 10-miler team last month in a qualification race in Grafenwöhr.

 

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The opinions expressed in the following comments do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense.

8/10/2010 9:16:45 PM
Our daughter, Violetta and we read this story together while looking for information on RAD. Violet was born and raised in Kudymkar, just south of Perm. Her experience was almost identical to yours. We met Violet at 8 years old and adopted her at 9. She suffered abuses, neglect and abandonment. Violet is 13 and adjusting to America, family, friends and school with lots of help. We are just beginning to learn about Fetal Alcohol, RAD and PTSD. Your story brought a smile to her face as she feels alone in this type of struggle. There are so many children who have similar stories and need to know that there are others who live wonderful lives in spite of the struggles. Thank you for sharing, you've brought happiness and hope to one 13 year old.
- Patricia Pearson, USA

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