Through Airmen's Eyes: Airman strengthens Russian ties at Manas

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
  • 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Not many Americans can say they are originally from Russia. Even fewer can say their military deployment has strengthened their family. For 2nd Lt. Liya Smolina, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Theater Security Cooperation chief host nation liaison, that's exactly the case.

"My entire family is Russian; that's where I was born," said Smolina, who is deployed out of Tyndall, Air Force Base, Fla., and considers Honolulu, Hawaii her hometown. "My grandparents on my mother's side came to America first, then I moved with my mom when I was eight and I haven't lived in Russia since."

After living in North Carolina for another eight years, her family moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. Although Russian was her first language, spoken for nearly the first decade of her life, Smolina has mainly spoken English since.

"I think I'm more fluent in English than Russian right now," she said. "I think when you spend 17 years speaking another language; it becomes a little more difficult to recall certain words in your first language that you've only spoken for eight years. It's a little more difficult for me than English, but I still remember most of it."

Her mother became an American citizen, automatically making her a naturalized citizen when she was 16 years old. Smolina became involved in programs like ROTC in school, and learned about the military from friends that were in. Her family supported her decision to join, and she picked a career in the Force Support Squadron, which is responsible for functions including lodging, fitness, dining, honor guard, mortuary affairs, protocol and more.

"I'm not an interpreter back at my home station, I'm a personnelist," she said. "That was actually my first choice."

At her home station, Smolina served in Readiness and Plans before being assigned to the community services flight. There she was in charge of ten services on base, facilities like the bowling center.

She also took the Defense Language Proficiency Test, getting officially recognized as being fluent in Russian.

"The Air Force Personnel Center found me by my scores, contacted my commander and asked me if I wanted to deploy to Kyrgyzstan," the interpreter explained. "I said definitely. I spoke with the interpreter that I replaced and she gave me an overview of what she did daily. I kind of learned what I would be doing as I went along."

She quickly discovered the importance of her mission.

"Interprets break the communication barrier that exists between the Kyrgyz and the Americans," she said. "We're in a foreign country where most of people speak Russian and we need to communicate with them somehow. I think we're key to the mission, especially since we have so many people from the Kyrgyz Republic working here on base. Whenever we go out to the city and we need to communicate with schools, hospitals, clinics or anywhere, that's what the interpreters are used for."

Smolina was a little rusty at first, since she'd mainly only spoken Russian during her first eight years of life. Her deployment has helped her refresh her language skills, she said.

"Coming out here and using the Russian language every day has definitely improved my proficiency," she said. "Back home, I don't speak Russian every day. I had to brush up on my Russian a little bit before I came; reading books, newspapers and watching Russian shows kind of helps recall some words."

This deployment has enabled Smolina to reunite with the Russian in her family.

"Whenever I speak with my mom, I'm speaking Russian now," she said. "Before this, we mostly communicated in English. Now, every time we talk, I try to use only Russian, and she says I've improved. Having this job has improved my family ties."

Being assigned to the Transit Center at Manas is having a big change in where Smolina sees the future of her career.

"I'm very lucky to have gotten this deployment very early in my career," she said. "It's going to be interesting to go back to my regular job. I love it, but it's going to be different. I think I'm going to seek out other opportunities in the Air Force for foreign language speakers and see if there are other interpreter opportunities out there for me.

"It's been great working here; our mission definitely makes the job a lot better. When you're doing great things and helping out people; what's better than that?"