TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan – Not many American airmen can say they are originally from Russia. Even fewer can say their military deployment has strengthened their family.
For Air Force 2nd Lt. Liya Smolina, chief host nation liaison for 376th Air Expeditionary Wing theater security cooperation, that's exactly the case.
"My entire family is Russian; that's where I was born," said Smolina, who is deployed from Tyndall, Air Force Base, Fla. "My grandparents on my mother's side came to America first, then I moved with my mom when I was 8, and I haven't lived in Russia since."
After living in North Carolina for another eight years, Smolina said, her family moved to Honolulu. Although Russian was her first language, she said, she mainly has spoken English.
"I think I'm more fluent in English than Russian right now," she said. "I think when you spend 17 years speaking another language, it becomes a little more difficult to recall certain words in your first language that you've only spoken for eight years. It's a little more difficult for me than English, but I still remember most of it."
When her mother became an American citizen, Smolina automatically became a naturalized citizen when she was 16. She became involved in programs such as ROTC in school, and learned about the military from friends who were serving, she said.
Her family supported her decision to join, she added, and she picked a career in force support, responsible for functions such as lodging, fitness, dining, honor guard, mortuary affairs, protocol and more.
"I'm not an interpreter back at my home station. I'm a personnelist," she said. "That was actually my first choice."
At her home station, Smolina served in readiness and plans before being assigned to the community services flight, where she was in charge of 10 on-base services, including the bowling center.
She also took the Defense Language Proficiency Test and was certified as being fluent in Russian, and now she serves here as an interpreter.
"The Air Force Personnel Center found me by my scores, contacted my commander and asked me if I wanted to deploy to Kyrgyzstan," she said. "I said, ‘Definitely.’ I spoke with the interpreter that I replaced, and she gave me an overview of what she did daily. I kind of learned what I would be doing as I went along."
She quickly discovered the importance of her mission.
"Interpreters break the communication barrier that exists between the Kyrgyz and the Americans," she said. "We're in a foreign country where most of people speak Russian, and we need to communicate with them somehow. I think we're key to the mission, especially since we have so many people from the Kyrgyz Republic working here on base. Whenever we go out to the city and we need to communicate with schools, hospitals, clinics or anywhere, that's what the interpreters are used for."
Smolina acknowledged her Russian was a little rusty at first, as she hadn’t used it regularly since she was 8 years old. Her deployment has helped her refresh her language skills, she said.
"Coming out here and using the Russian language every day has definitely improved my proficiency," she said. "Back home, I don't speak Russian every day. I had to brush up on my Russian a little bit before I came -- reading books, newspapers and watching Russian shows kind of helps recall some words."
Smolina said this deployment has enabled her to reunite with her Russian heritage.
"Whenever I speak with my mom, I'm speaking Russian now," she said. "Before this, we mostly communicated in English. Now, every time we talk, I try to use only Russian, and she says I've improved. Having this job has improved my family ties."
Smolina said this deployment has added to how she sees the future of her career.
"I'm very lucky to have gotten this deployment very early in my career," she said. "It's going to be interesting to go back to my regular job. I love it, but it's going to be different. I think I'm going to seek out other opportunities in the Air Force for foreign language speakers and see if there are other interpreter opportunities out there for me.
"It's been great working here,” she continued. “Our mission definitely makes the job a lot better. When you're doing great things and helping out people, what's better than that?"