Serving to say 'thanks'

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Janelle Patiño
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
"My family and I couldn't be more thankful for what the United States government has done for us," said Airman 1st Class Ànts Vähk, 92nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron bioenvironmental engineer. "I found joining the military to be the best way to repay them for all the help they have given us ever since we migrated to the U.S."

Vähk, along with his parents and seven siblings, migrated to the U.S. from Kohtla-Järve, Estonia in 1996. His mother, an owner of livestock, sold everything they had including cows and chickens to pay for their tickets, passports and other requirements needed to migrate to the U.S.

"For eight months we lived with my uncle in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moved to Moses Lake, Washington, where my mom got a job," Vähk said. "With my mom working, it still wasn't enough to take care of our growing family of eight other siblings plus my disabled dad."

Vähk's family lived in a two-bedroom house where nine children shared a room. As soon as they got settled, the kids were able to attend public schools.

"She went on welfare, which helped pay for our food," Vähk added. "The Grant County House Authority helped us pay for housing and my mom was also able to get health insurance through the state since we couldn't afford any of it."

Growing up, Vähk and his siblings listened to war and military stories from their dad who served in the Russian military back when Estonia was a satellite nation of the Soviet Union.

"My brothers also joined the [U.S.] military, so they would always talk about their experiences," said Vähk. "They would put the rest of us through their own little boot camp. It has been instilled in me ever since."

As time passed by, Vähk slowly began to understand what the government had done for his family. So he set out to repay in the best way he could.

"As I got older, I realized without the government's help, there would've been a lot more days without any food on our table," he said. "Personally, I am very grateful for everything we received."

After turning 18, Vähk raised his right hand and took the oath to be a part of the U.S. Air Force. While in training, he received a letter from his mother saying his father was ill.

"She didn't really go into detail until I got into technical training," Vähk recalled. I remember it was May 5, 2014, I was sitting in my friend's dorm. I was talking on the phone in Russian, and all my friends stared in amazement. [Then] all of a sudden I stopped talking and had this shocked look on my face. That's when I found out my dad had stage four colon cancer and it was terminal."

Vähk didn't know what to say or think about the situation and had a hard time concentrating in school. After receiving the news, Vähk decided to confide with his Military Training Leader.

"I'm usually the type of person who doesn't bring issues or problems to school or at work, but this was different," he added. "I'm thankful I asked for help, because I wouldn't have gotten any information on what resources the Air Force offered to get the help I needed."

MTLs, the Airman & Family Readiness Center and the first sergeant all worked together to help Vähk. During Memorial Day weekend, he was allowed to return home and visit his father.

"During that time, I took it upon myself to help my mom with bills, but I ended up not having enough money to pay for a ticket to fly home," Vähk said. "The A&FRC and the first sergeant helped me pay for everything."

Vähk had the opportunity to bond with his father while he could still walk and do the activities they both loved, including fishing. They went every day and talked about anything and everything.

After graduating from technical school, Vähk went home to serve in the Recruiters Assistance Program for two weeks. His recruiter then informed him about the Humanitarian Reassignment and Deferment program; a program that assists Airmen in resolving severe short-term problems involving a family member by reassigning them closer to home.

"I wanted to be as close as possible to my dad so I applied for the program with the help of my recruiter and Tech. Sgt. Moody, the education officer back at my first base, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska," he said. "While waiting to hear back regarding my package, I got a call from my mom saying my dad was getting weaker. That's when I went on emergency leave to go back home for 30 days."

While on leave, Vähk found out his package got approved and was notified Fairchild AFB would be his next base. He reported to Fairchild AFB after his leave in October 2014. In February 2015 while at work, he got another call from his father.

"He called and told me he didn't know if he was going to make it in another week so I, again, went on emergency leave for 28 days," said Vähk. "The hardest part was seeing him, the big strong man he was, being slowly deteriorated by cancer and getting skinnier and weaker."

With fishing being their favorite thing to do, Vähk's father asked his son to go fishing for him. I remember getting home late at night from fishing and I would see him reading a book in his room because he didn't have the energy to even fall asleep, Vähk recalled.

As much as he wanted to stay, Vähk had to return to work. Then one day while he was at his brother's house near the base, their mother texted the bad news.

"All 11 of us siblings got a text saying dad was dead," Vähk said. "It's never easy to lose a parent especially losing him when I was 19 [years old]. It wasn't enough years to be with my father, but I'm thankful to have gotten the chance to spend time with him as much as I did."

Memories came flashing back; remembering the last time Vähk saw his father. I remember hugging him tight and telling him I loved him, he recalled.

Vähk has remained thankful for not only what the government has done for him and his family, but also the Air Force. "I started off joining the Air Force to serve those who have helped my family, and it still keeps giving and helping us to this day," Vähk added.

"The Air Force has constantly been there since the time I joined to the time I found out about my father," he said. "Everybody that I came in contact with has been very supportive and has helped me with everything. [They were there when] I needed to be comforted and the times when I needed to see my father."

I have truly been blessed by the Air Force, Vähk concluded.