Imagine discovering a once in a lifetime chance to change your life forever.
Taking that chance meant you had to leave your home, move to a new country and face a new adventure. This Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Airman’s story could be one for the big screen.
Staff Sgt. Oleksandr Kalinin, 56th Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School instructor, exchanged his old memories for the idea of making new ones in a new place.
“My story is almost like a movie,” said Kalinin. “Born and raised in Ukraine, I lived there until I was close to 15 years old. The 2008 recession hit, my parents owned a business which was struggling. So my parents, out of desperation, started looking for ways out.”
Kalinin’s parents discovered and applied for the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the “green card lottery.”
Through the program, applicants of low-admission countries ó any country with fewer than 50,000 natives admitted to the United States in the previous five years ó are eligible to enter the lottery for a U.S. visa. However, according to the American Immigration Council, the odds of being randomly selected are slim with an average of 13.3 million people submitting applications every year.
“About six or so months later my parents received a letter in the mail,” said Kalinin. “They sent it to my English tutor and we sat there with him while he opened it. He briefly scanned it and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to America!’”
Kalinin, his parents and his brother moved to Seattle in April 2010. They reconnected with his dad’s old college friend who helped them settle into a two-bedroom apartment.
Soon Kalinin realized that the United States is a country filled with experiences he wasn’t used to. He said one thing that amazed him was that you could get free refills.
“In Ukraine that’s not a thing,” Kalinin said. “If you want another one you have to purchase it.”
Kalinin explained that after leaving the world he knew, he was initially lonely because he didn’t know anyone and felt isolated. However, he is thankful for the openness and the help he’s received thus far on his journey in the United States. Before graduating high school, he decided to join the Air Force in 2014.
“I joined the military because I didn’t know how to fill out a college application,” he joked. “Actually, I wanted to fly, and my dad saw how much the service takes care of you because he enlisted as internal troops in the Soviet Army back in the 1980s. He said it was tough, so he kind of prepared me for it. It’s a good foundation.”
Kalinin enlisted as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician. He mentioned that HVAC technical training was challenging to learn because of all the materials the job encompasses, but overcame it while making many lifelong friends.
Kalinin arrived at Luke in October 2014. He attended Airman Leadership School in March of 2019 without knowing that he’d later be an instructor.
Kalinin said the five weeks students spend at ALS is a little snapshot of what leadership looks like in action. Students are presented with situations where they’re forced to adapt to build their leadership skills. He also encourages them to return to their unit and change the Air Force from within it, or if they choose to get out, use the skill sets learned to change the world from outside the military.
Eight months later, he became an ALS instructor himself and now teaches Airmen the skill sets and criteria needed to become noncommissioned officers.
“He told me before he came to ALS he was planning on just getting out of the military after his time was up,” said Master Sgt. Bradford Doyon, 56th FSS ALS commandant. “ALS made such a big impression on him that he wanted to be part of the team and give back what he received. When he was being evaluated during the selection process you’d never know he was teaching his first class ó you’d think he’d been doing it for a year or two already.”
As an extrovert, Kalinin said he loves working with people and emphasized the fact that experiences can’t be bought.
“My first class was graduating at Club 5/6 and all my students were looking sharp,” said Kalinin. “I just remembered how they walked up to me and thanked me. I stood there and thought, in no other point of time can I buy this, this is real.”
Apart from being an ALS instructor, Kalinin is working on his bachelor’s degree in management and plans to complete it within the next year. Once achieved, he is going to apply for the Air Force Officer Training School program.
“When I came in I wanted to fly jets, but it took another five years for it to sink in and think how much I really want to fly,” said Kalinin. “Now I’m taking steps. I see the progress and this progress fuels further progress.”
Kalinin said he has embraced all the opportunities the Air Force has given him, such as the chance to go to school and buy a house, and suggests others do the same. Kalinin earned his U.S. Certificate of Citizenship Aug. 21, 2014, while in technical training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
“Overall, the military tells you how to succeed,” said Kalinin. “Which tells me the people that don’t succeed are actively refusing to succeed. If you’re here to do something, put your mind to it and do it the best you can. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need help. People are always willing to help.”
Kalinin returned to Ukraine in 2019 to visit family, a trip that brought back memories but reminded him that his home is in the states. He said he plans to stay in the military but would also like to be a movie actor one day.
“It suits me,” said Kalinin. “It’s easy to get along with people, to do the mission. It’s a wonderful joy ride. I can see myself serving for 20 years, unless I get picked up for a new Hollywood blockbuster.”