WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Freedom, peace, prosperity and opportunity. The American Dream at full bloom can look like a lot of different things, but it usually stems from the heartfelt desire for these fruit of democracy.
For one 16 year old girl from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the freedom to choose her own path as a woman and the promise of peace away from violent revolution were enough motivation to uproot her life.
Wide city boulevards, marble-faced public buildings, and Soviet-style apartments situated in front of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range provided the backdrop for Airman 1st Class Vera Schwenk’s childhood in the capital city.
“My favorite building in the whole city is the theater of opera and ballet,” said Schwenk, an avionics technician assigned to the 509th Maintenance Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. “It is gigantic and just the most beautiful building.”
She recounted watching the Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets there.
“If you go out of Bishkek, everything is very rural, almost primitive,” said Schwenk. “When I would go out to Kochkor to visit my relatives, they were the ones who lived in yurts. They had donkeys, horses and sheep, and were very self-sustaining.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica website, more than 64 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population live this rural existence. Its population is made up of a majority of Kyrgyz people with minority groups of Russians, Germans, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tatars, Kazakhs, Dungans, Uighurs and Tajiks.
“A lot of them look very similar and their cultures are very similar,” said Schwenk. “But they are very vocal about their differences. They are very proud.”
On top of ethnic tensions, the people of Kyrgyzstan have endured political corruption and unrest for generations. In the span of Schwenk’s life so far, she has witnessed two violent uprisings.
“Politics have always been a main sore of the country,” said Schwenk. “We had revolutions in 2005 and in 2010. They were the most vivid periods of my life in Kyrgyzstan.”
Authoritarian rule and the invalid parliamentary election of 2005 sparked the Tulip Revolution, or First Kyrgyz Revolution, from March to April of that year. The Kyrgyz Opposition group overthrew then President Askar Akayev as well as the standing government.
In 2010, the Second Kyrgyz Revolution broke out. It started in April with the removal and exile of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and continued for eight more months with violent protests.
Schwenk was just two blocks away at her middle school on the day that it broke out. She was only 12-years-old.
“The teachers just rounded us up and sent us home,” she said. “Walking home was very weird that day. I had never heard gunshots before, people were screaming.”
Schwenk remembered the streets being abandoned and people looting stores. She recalled the general sense of chaos and confusion.
“You don’t fully understand what’s going on,” she said. “You only knew what you heard from friends and relatives, or the news, which was often illegitimate. It was scary wondering if we would need to flee the country.”
Her mother, Zuhra Kyshtobaeva, said she was at work an hour away at the time.
“I was very worried about Vera that day, as she was at school,” she said. “But luckily everything ended up okay. She got home safe and we stayed inside and didn’t leave home for a few days.”
Schwenk, now 20 years old, reflected back on that period of time.
“I’m just very grateful that nothing bad happened to me,” she said. “I am happy that I’m in a better place now, in a country that has better ways of dealing with those types of issues.”
Her journey to the United States began when she was just 16 years old.
“I was just about to graduate my boarding school,” she said. “I was in panic mode. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I was going to go.”
She described her educational and career opportunities as being extremely limited.
“A woman cannot really excel in a lot of spheres in Kyrgyzstan,” she said.
Most of her peers would get married and start families very young without ever pursuing ambitious futures for themselves.
Schwenk’s father was an American contractor who helped facilitate the construction of Manas Air Force Base, where he met her mother, who served there as an interpreter through the U.S. Embassy Military Cooperation Projects.
Because of her connection to her father, she could get an American passport.
“I begged my mother to get me out of there,” she said emphatically.
Her mother said they had many serious discussions about her daughter’s desire to leave home.
“I was hesitant at first,” she said. “But I don’t think I had any right to stop her from bettering her life.”
Two weeks later, Schwenk was saying goodbye to her mother at the airport in Kazakhstan. Her mother cried and walked as far through the airport as she was allowed.
“I will describe that moment as surreal,” said Schwenk. “I felt like someone could have pinched me and I would have woken up from a dream.”
In the United States
When she arrived in the U.S., she moved in with her paternal grandparents in Pennsylvania, who she was meeting for the first time.
“I paid them more than 200 dollars in rent each month from my job at MacDonald’s,” said Schwenk.
She attended a small high school where she enjoyed acting in drama productions of Guys and Dolls as well as Grease.
“I took a lot of AP classes,” said Schwenk. “I think I wanted to challenge myself a little too much. I would leave my job at MacDonald’s at 11 and then stay up until 2 in the morning doing homework, then get up at 6 for school and do it all again.”
She described her routine as worth the effort.
“Thankfully I had all this energy,” said Schwenk. “The thought of ‘I got here. I am here in America. I have to work hard now’ kept me going. I never even felt tired most of the time because I just felt so lucky.”
When the time came to decide what she would do after graduation, she felt overwhelmed by all of her options including applying for scholarships and considering a career in the U.S. military.
While learning about the potential paths ahead of her, she had to adjust some of her own notions about the military.
“Joining the military was something I never even considered, due to what I saw in Kyrgysztan,” she said. “The military in Kyrgyzstan was corrupt. They were the only people with weapons who had the authority to hurt you without consequences.”
Along with that though, she remembered all the positive things her mother had said about working with American military members.
“When I saw the brochures in my guidance counselor’s office or saw recruiters at the job fairs, that’s what sparked my interest,” said Schwenk.
She said she was stunned by the educational opportunities and benefits, such as free healthcare, serving in the Air Force could afford her.
“I couldn’t wrap my mind around why more people weren’t joining,” she said.
Schwenk left for basic training in February of 2017, enlisting in an open electrical career path.
“Joining the Air Force has shaped me into becoming a more-patient, hardworking and well-rounded person,” she said. “I’m working at a job I didn’t think I could be good at. I feel like I have found a whole new side of myself that I never knew existed.”
As an avionics technician, Schwenk maintains, calibrates, inspects and performs repairs on the many electrical systems within the B-2 Stealth Bomber.
Schwenk said it is intimidating, but she enjoys the inherent challenges within her job.
“It feels like trying to figure out a very intricate and expensive puzzle,” she said. “It is very satisfying.”
Her supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Adam T. Pinkney, the lead avionics production supervisor, lauded her performance.
“She is easily at the top of her peer group when it comes to our job,” he said. “She is always willing to learn and seek opportunities to better herself on and off duty. Her work ethic is incredible and contagious. I wish everyone was like her. I am very excited to call her my sister in arms.”
Her husband, Robert, who she met before joining the military, is considering following her example.
“He is interested in working in the metals tech shop,” she said.
The next leg in her journey of self-improvement is just beginning at the University of Maryland University College, where she is working to complete the Associate to Baccalaureate Cooperative (AU-ABC).
According to the AF Virtual Education website, Airmen with associate in applied science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) can apply those credits toward a 4-year degree program.
“My perception of myself and my worth have changed for the better since joining the Air Force,” said Schwenk. “I have a better understanding of what I want my life to be in the future and that’s all thanks to the guidance and teachings of the Air Force.”