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Finally home: one man's pure desire to serve his adoptive nation

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mike Hammond
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
It's amazing how sometimes you get just what you need, right when you need it.

More than five months into another deployment, I was tired. Tired from the challenges faced in a new job, a new place. Tired from the long hours and pressure of trying to be the best. Tired of being away from my wife and kids.

With my personal battery gauge hovering in the red area just above empty, I put on my game face and traveled to another deployed location to follow up on a compelling story I'd learned about weeks earlier. While there, I figured I'd go around and see what else I could dig up to highlight the good folks providing base security for an important combined training mission.

As luck would have it, some folks I met introduced me to 2nd Lt. Konstantin Gazaryan of the 64th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. My initial impression was the same as it always is these days when meeting lieutenants: I felt old. He came across as professional, fit, enthusiastic -- but it always hits me how long I've been in the Air Force when I meet leaders in their early 20s!

Except this man had lived more in his years than I have in mine.

His world was turned upside down in 1990, when he was just 5 years old. He was sharing a small apartment in Azerbaijan, a small Eastern European country located on the Caspian Sea, north of Iran and south of Russia, with his grandparents and other family members during a time of struggle in Baku, the city of his birth, when the Azeris began what Gazaryan and many news sources describe as genocide.

"I remember the day," Gazaryan said quietly. "I remember a loud knocking on the door. There was someone pounding his fist on the door, screaming. I remember looking at my grandpa and he was frantic -- pulling pins off our apartment doors and bracing them against the front door. But it really didn't work," he explained.

"The crowd behind the door knew who we were. They hacked their way through the front door and opened a latch. Then there was a raid of people ... a bunch of people coming in, walking all over the place, walking on our beds and looting. They grabbed my grandmother's crystal and everything of value they could get their hands on. We watched my grandmother hide all our important documents under her skirt. It was nuts."

The conflict was rooted in history and politics in the region, but to 5-year-old Konstantin, it made no sense why angry people were raiding his home.

"Growing up, I was curious because I really didn't understand what would make someone hate somebody else so much that they would want to kill you. I was only 5 years old -- I didn't understand why people would do that."

Gazaryan and his family were targeted like many other Armenians, but they lost more than their worldly possessions during the raid.

"After that incident, we were refugees. We didn't have a home. They had buses lined up outside waiting for us. They shipped us to the airport because they were trying to find a place to put us," he explained. "So we went to Moscow, but the Russians said we weren't truly Russian so they didn't want us there, either."

Eventually, the family settled in the outlying city of Rostov-na-Donu, where Gazaryan's father, Slav Gazaryan, joined them and supported the family by doing odd jobs in construction and repair. During the next several years, the family began the process of applying to immigrate to the United States. Because they were considered refugees, the process was not as long as it might have been; when Konstantin was 8-years-old, the family was on a plane to Omaha, Neb. They had finally found a home.

After landing at the local airport, the Gazaryans stayed with relatives already in Omaha as they began getting settled. Slav got right to work, taking two jobs and getting the family established. Unfortunately, the hard-working father -- who would bring young Konstantin with him to jobs, trying to teach him a trade -- didn't get to enjoy the new life he'd built.

Slav Gazaryan died in a car accident about a year after moving to the United States.

His father's death devastated Konstantin but as time passed the family made it through -- happy and grateful to finally have a homeland where they were welcome.

That sense of gratitude stayed with the young man as he came of age to choose his career.

"I know a lot of people have different reasons to join the service, but for me it's pretty personal," the lieutenant told me. "I don't mean to be a sap, but this country gave me a home when no one else would -- so it wouldn't be right if I didn't stand up and answer the call when my country needed me most. After all, (my country) was there for me."

Based largely on their various experiences with militaries and the current danger of operations, Gazaryan's family was concerned to hear his plan to join.

"I just told them that we are here enjoying these rights ... we were taken in by this country when everybody else hated us for no reason. So it was a no-brainer for me to sign up," he said.

Gazaryan earned a commission as a member of Detachment 470, the "Wolf Pack," Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.

Now, halfway through his first deployment, as he tried to put into words what his deployed service meant to him, he ran out of words -- but not emotion. Seeing the purity of his intent to serve, and the pride he had in paying back what he sees as a debt to his adoptive nation ... well, let's just say this lieutenant and his story helped me when I needed it.

Like hooking up a pair of jumper cables to a car in need, meeting this second lieutenant, a proud Defender with the 64th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, charged my battery and allowed me to, as they say, sprint to the finish line!