Through Airmen's Eyes: Triumph of survival
7/11/2012 - LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories and commentaries focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
In 1995 in America, most six-year-old boys spent their days picking on six-year-old girls, or mimicking and idolizing the Power Rangers and characters from Dragon Ball Z and the World Wrestling Federation.
For six-year-old Muhamed Mehmedovic, escaping to safety from tanks through the woods with his father and thousands of men in Bosnia was his daily routine after a war started three years prior.
Senior Airman Muhamed Mehmedovic, a 19th Logistics Readiness Squadron air transportation journeyman, said the United States saved his and his family's life when they air dropped food and medical supplies during a war in which genocide was committed against his people. This action from the U.S. resulted in Mehmedovic's inspiration to become a pilot and pay homage to the country that was a significant part in giving his family a better life.
"I originally wanted to be a pilot and pursue education," he said, "but more importantly, to give back to the country of the United States. They gave so much to my family, and they ultimately saved my life. I feel like I owe that to the U.S."
Mehmedovic said during the conflict between Serbians and Bosnians, his hometown of Srebrenica was destroyed. Genocide was committed against the Muslim population where he lived. And even after the war ended, the area was still in crisis.
"During this time frame, our hometown was cut off from supplies, military power coming in and food," Mehmedovic said. "There was a huge starvation timeframe then, and the way the United States helped us was by providing air drops. They air dropped tons and tons of food, supplies and medical equipment constantly between 1992 and 1995. My dad and other family members went out to retrieve these items that were in bundles on pallets dropped from (C-130 Hercules aircraft).
"Ultimately, their actions saved my life," he said. "So many of the people there live off of agriculture, but the supplies and livestock quickly depleted. The majority of the area was targeted by tanks, so many of the livestock died. We didn't live in our house because it was hit by a tank. We were living from one cousin's house to another cousin's house."
Traveling from family to family was a struggle, Mehmedovic said. He was not only with his mother, father and brother; his grandmother and her five sons and two daughters were traveling as well.
"We were targeted by military," said Mehmedovic. "They would shoot at us, and we would try to fight back. We could not win the war; we were just trying to survive. The Serbians were after our males. Killing off the males would prevent future generations, which would force the Muslim population to marry into Protestants. Serbians were mostly Protestants. We would have to marry into another culture, which would ultimately wipe us out. After everything was said and done, 8,000 people died in my town. Those 8,000 accounted for were only the people who were found. About 80 percent of my family was a part of that 8,000."
Because the Serbians were not after women, Mehmedovic said males were forced to flee through the woods and find a safe place or town, which was Tuzla in this case. As they went through the woods, the men, including Mehmedovic's dad and his brothers, had to fight the military. The area was mined. Out of Mehmedovic's grandmother's five sons, only his dad and one of his dad's brothers made it to Tuzla. Women and small children were shuttled there. Elderly men were killed off.
"We escaped to Tuzla and were sponsored by the locals there," said Mehmedovic. "We lived in their houses from 1995 to 2002. I was 13 years old then. Around the year 2000, there was a program that was allowing immigrants who no longer had a home because of the war to come to the United States and start a new life. We didn't have an option to go back. Even if we did, there was nothing to go back to. No people. Nothing. It was deserted."
Once Mehmedovic's family applied for this program, they did everything necessary to become approved, such as doing numerous interviews, saving money and moving to another location. They applied in 2000 and would have left in 2001, but because of 9/11, they were delayed until May 2002. In 2002 they were sent to St. Louis and were sponsored by their cousins who had made it to American six months prior.
When he first got to America, Mehmedovic said it was a culture shock.
"The school systems were different," he said. "The streets were different. To me all the houses looked exactly alike. I wanted to be here because I saw the great opportunities. It's much better than what we came from.
"The biggest thing for me was that there was food," he continued. "You can go to the store and pick up anything you want ... any time of the year and take it home. You don't have to wait for a certain season to have bananas. It was worth everything to get here. I felt like, now we have this sense of safety for once, I knew my parents still worried about the people we left behind because they're still struggling."
Soon after arriving in the U.S., Mehmedovic and his brother both began school, where was placed in eighth grade. When he started classes, all he was trying to do was get the basics down, like learning English and getting prepared for high school.
"The school system in Bosnia is tough; I was a straight-A student," Mehmedovic said. "Coming here, English was my biggest challenge. Compliments to my teachers, I had the basics down within three months. I could communicate and go to school and also help my parents get around."
Mehmedovic started high school in 2004. Not only did he continue with good grades, but he was also on the wrestling team, played soccer occasionally and worked at a consumer electronics retailer.
"I knew I wanted to be a pilot, but not a military pilot," he said. "I met a lot of retirees at Best Buy. They told me that the Air Force was an option. I didn't know this was an option for me. The challenge for me was, 'How do I tell my parents that even though we just left a war and all these bad things, and we're safe and life is good, that I want to join the United States Air Force. And I have no guarantee that I'm not going to be deployed or ever be shot at?'
"My brother supported me all the way," he said. "My dad, who was a solider in Yugoslavia, supported me and advised me to be smart, do the right things and follow orders. My mother, who worked for a company that manufactured airman battle uniforms and Army equipment, cried. She only knew to expect the worst."
Before Mehmedovic told his family of what he wanted to do, his mind was already made up. He had already signed all the papers and had already gone to the Military Entrance Processing Station.
"I was just waiting to be called and go," he said. "I graduated from high school in May. I signed the papers in June or July. I told my parents in July and I left in October."
After four years of being in the Air Force, Mehmedovic said it's been great.
"Right now ... at this point, the circle is being completed," he said. "This is where I want to be. I joined as air transportation. One of the biggest aerial delivery squadrons is here. This is where all the riggers receive their training on how to properly put the parachutes on, properly rig the food, and put it on aircraft for it to be dropped in a specific location."
After his deployment, which begins in the fall, Mehmedovic will begin training on properly preparing food for airdrop delivery.
"I am very excited," he said. "The motivation is high. I definitely cannot wait to begin. I know it makes a difference. I know that somebody's life will be changed."
The flyers who dropped food and medical supplies those many years ago may never know the effects of what they did, Mehmedovic said, but it made a difference. He said no one should ever feel that their job is insignificant.
"Your job matters and it makes a difference no matter what your job is in the Air Force," he said. "In my case, someone's job made a great difference in my life and family's life. In St. Louis alone, there are thousands of Bosnians there because of what someone did. My story is just one of them."
Mehmedovic said he is grateful to the Air Force and the opportunities it has brought his family.
"I definitely want to stay in the Air Force," he said. "Being in the Air Force gave me many opportunities that bettered me. Looking back from the high school kid I was to now, I'm a whole different person. And I like what I'm becoming. I want future generations to see the transformation of me. I want to make a difference, and the best way I know how to do that is by staying in."
Whether it's visiting family or lending a helping hand, Mehmedovic said he will definitely go back to Bosnia.
"We constantly try and help our families out who are back in Bosnia by sending money," he said. "My parents have gone back a couple times.
"My family (here) is doing very good," Mehmedovic said. "This is something that I speak very proudly of. Coming here without being able to speak any English, my parents, brother and I are all speaking English, or at least the basics. My family has owned a trucking company and are still in the trucking business, which is kind of like logistics, which is what I'm doing," he laughed. "We have our own house, and I'm an uncle now. My family is growing here in America."
Mehmedovic said he will continue to tell his story, not to dwell on the heartache and pain of it, but to celebrate the triumph of survival and moving forward.
"My story will go on," he said. "I will try to use my story to motivate others. I will try to use it positively. It happened. You can't take it back; you can only make a difference going forward. This is my story. How many stories do you think are going on right now? We are all the same. We all have the same power to make a difference, and that's what I want to do."