An Ethiopian in the U.S. Military

By: Alula Berhane

"So, why did you join the US Air Force?" has become a very familiar question asked of me in the last 7 plus years.

Let me begin with a brief synopsis of my life around the time I made my decision. In late 1989 I was working at a grocery store making insane money for a single guy with no responsibilities. I was just living it up! I traveled, partied and just had a dandy 'ol time! The problem was, I still had that "Education is key!" bug that I inherited from my father nagging at me everyday. At the time, all I had was my AA and I was waiting for the company I was working for to open a branch in Sacramento, CA, so I could transfer and finish up my BA there.

After waiting around for a year and a half, I began to look at all possible alternatives. One alternative was the Army. I had picked up some information on the Army during a career day presentation a few years back. I knew that it would pay for schooling, but I didn't know the details. So, one day I was out gallivanting around when I passed by a recently completed building that housed all the recruiting offices of the different military branches. I figured I had a few hours to blow anyway so I stopped by the Army office and introduced my self to Sgt. D.

We sat down and had a "chat" until he found out I was waiting for my green card. He told me to come back when I got it. During the six months it took to get my green card, I did some research on my own and made a list of what I wanted to do in the Army. When I sat down with Sgt. D I knew the goal was to get my BA at the Army's expense, and be a fixed wing pilot. Sgt. D told me that the only guarantee he could give me was that I could be a helicopter pilot since Army aviation is 90% rotor wings. When I said no, he personally walked me over to the Air Force office and introduced me to the recruiter! For those of you who have dealt with military recruiters before, you know this not the norm at all. They all have to fulfill a quota every month and each body that walks though their doors is one less they have to go find. Regardless, I ended up in the Air Force. And ever since the initial shock of boot camp, which is another story in itself, I never have looked back or regretted my choice.

The second question I am most frequently asked is where my allegiance would be in a conflict with Ethiopia or some other third world country. I especially remember one incident where I had a heated discussion, more like a shouting match, with one of my abro adegs. From his point of view, I was a fool to be in the Air Force. One, I was furthering the goals of American (he called it Babylon) foreign policy which is never good for the third world, and two, I was putting myself in a position where I may have to go against my own if told to do so by this "Babylon".

In my humble opinion, as long as we live here and intend to continue to do so, we all further the cause of "Babylon"-- by paying taxes, benefiting from the economy and abiding by its laws. In that respect, we are all in the same boat. If we don't like the American way, we all have the absolute right to leave. You have to remember that serving in the military is not that much different than working in a corporate office. The only difference is that the corporate world does not require you to willingly put your life in harms way. That is a risk I have thought of and accepted.

There is a huge misconception about serving in the military: that you have to go wherever they send you whenever they decide. Although this is true overall, there are exceptions. When the need arises for deployment of troops, the first question asked is if there is a member who is a native or has ethnic ties to the region. These members are interviewed to determine how they feel about being deployed to a place where they may have to kill someone of the same ethnic background as themselves in defense of American soldiers. If you refuse to do so, you will not be required to go. Thus, if there ever was a situation where war breaks out with Ethiopia, I don't have to go. At the same time, this "if" is such a remote possibility that it should not be a basis for me to forego an opportunity of a lifetime that is second to none in the experience and satisfaction it provides.

You may ask what I've gotten out of my time in the service? What opportunities I've had and how being in the service has changed my life? I can't fully answer that without writing a book, which I have no intention of doing. The short version is that I have grown to appreciate life everyday because the nature of my profession dictates my life may end in the next few hours.

I have acquired professional and personal skills I can use for the rest of my life. I've learnt not only to take advantage of any and all opportunities that come my way, but also how to create opportunities for myself!

I have learnt that America is what you make out of it. The spoils of the nation are yours for the taking if you ask and insist on it!

But most important of all, the service has shown me making money cannot be a priority in my life if I want to live happy. If you do what your heart tells you, whatever money you make will generally be enough to live comfortably. You have to love your career and be able to wake up in the morning and say, "Today, I will accomplish such and such!" In hindsight, this is why I joined the service; my heart was in it and I love my career!