“My grandma did not think this war was going to happen, and I believed her.”
In 2006, Master Sgt. Maria Jarr, 607th Air Control Squadron flight chief, emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine with her mother and younger brother. Her mother wanted to give Maria and her brother the opportunity for a better life. For Maria, that opportunity came in the form of the U.S. Air Force. In 2010, at the age of 18, Maria took the oath of enlistment and pledged to serve her new country.
“I know some people feel like they need to have this crazy story of why they joined, but my story was rather simple,” Maria said. “I joined for a college education and I’m not embarrassed about that.”
Thanks to the Air Force’s tuition assistance program, Maria was able to get her bachelor’s degree in environmental science debt free and is now working on her master’s degree in environmental management.
“I didn’t really have a plan after high school; I knew I wanted to go to college but it was so expensive,” Maria said. “So, I considered my options and decided to join the Air Force. It worked out to be a really good option for me. I’ve been in for 13 years now and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities.”
One of those opportunities was joining the Language Enabled Airman Program. When Maria used her dual language skills to join LEAP, it brought her back to the country she once called home, this time as a representative of NATO and the United States.
“It enabled me to go to Ukraine for a training exercise in 2018,” said Maria. “I was an interpreter for Clear Sky 2018, a NATO exercise between the U.S., Ukraine, and other NATO partners. I translated for our U.S. pilots and Ukrainian pilots.”
While Clear Sky enabled her to visit Ukraine, Maria has maintained a strong connection to the country through her family. Ever since moving to the United States with her mother, Maria has kept in close contact with her grandparents in Kherson, Ukraine.
“I would make frequent phone calls to my grandparents,” Maria said. “In fact, before the conflict happened we would have conversations about what I would see on the news. The news said that things were starting to heat up, but my grandma did not think this war was going to happen and I believed her.”
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin, launched an invasion of Ukraine, deploying troops from the north, east and south. On March 2, 2022, Russia claimed control of the southern city of Kherson, where Maria’s family lives.
“My grandma said that there were curfews instated by the Russian military,” Maria said. “They couldn’t leave, the Russian soldiers would literally shoot people’s tires off.”
Maria said that her grandparents’ community was facing difficulties beyond limited travel. Her grandmother told her that their neighbors would be out in the streets trying to get food while soldiers patrolled in tanks and they could hear gunshots in the distance. They also faced some personal difficulties as well.
“My grandparents are old and they have a lot of health issues,” Maria said. “They did not get their pension for a long time after the war started. So that was a financial burden to them. Luckily, they had my family with them, so they were taken care of, but it’s such a weird space in Ukraine. It wasn’t even safe to send money.”
When Maria offered to send her grandparents financial aid, they refused. They told Maria that the money would not reach them even if it was sent through a credible source.
“I’ve had people ask me, why don’t they just leave,” Maria said. “But it’s not as easy as a lot of people may think.”
While filling out the paperwork to bring her grandparents to the United States by sponsoring them as refugees, Maria was told they made the difficult decision to stay in Kherson.
“They would have to make their way to Poland and fly here,” Maria said. “At the border people stop you and you have to give them money to let you pass; and they’re not cheap bribes. They would be thousands of U.S. dollars, which is a lot for normal people in Ukraine.”
Aside from the financial and logistical challenges, her grandparents would have to leave behind more than a war-torn country.
“They would also have to leave the rest of our family, like my uncle and their other granddaughter. They would not have them here,” Maria said. “They made the decision to stay so our family doesn’t have to be as separated and they can still have each other for support.”
On Nov. 9, 2022, after a large Ukrainian counter offensive, Russia announced their withdrawal from Kherson. Shortly after, the city was reclaimed by Ukrainian forces and has since remained under Ukrainian control. But even with the liberation of Kherson from Russian occupation, the conflict in the region is far from over.
“Whenever we have a phone call, my grandma still tells me she hears different guns, aircraft, or that the military is dropping bombs nearby,” Maria said. “I can’t imagine it. It must be so scary.”
Though Maria is unable to be physically with her family she still supports them the best she can from afar. Additionally, she encourages other Airmen to take advantage of their backgrounds and connects them with opportunities to do so.
After returning from Clear Sky in 2019, Maria became a mentor for LEAP and now with the assistance of Master Sgt. Oahn Moraine, 56th Force Support Squadron Community Services Flight superintendent, and Master Sgt. Norma Johnson, John J. Rhodes Airmen Leadership School commandant, she spreads awareness of the program to other dual language Airmen stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
“I love mentoring and I love helping people,” said Maria. “I’m heavily involved with the people I know speak other languages in my squadron. I try to encourage them to apply to the [LEAP] program. I want to help them reach their potential.”
The desire Maria has for the success of others is a cornerstone of who she is and her effort does not go unnoticed.
“Having known Master Sergeant Jarr for over a year now it’s hard to find someone that cares for the Airmen more than her,” said Tech. Sgt. Paul McDonough, 607th Air Control Squadron weapons director. “She is passionate about taking care of all Airmen and knows when it’s done right, they can execute their mission best. Honestly, she really epitomizes the Air Force’s core values.”
Pursuing family, mission, and passions is no easy task under normal circumstances and Maria has been able to manage all three despite the challenges that have come her way. Maria shows the unique life balance many total force Airmen maintain when aligning with the Air Force’s core values; integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.