‘A very unique experience’: Enlisting and working in the US military

By Kristen Snyder

Black hats surround recruits struggling to drag their bags from the bus. Their voices cut through the air, oversaturating the senses of each recruit. Every error or demonstration of inefficiency is exposed and publicly admonished. Each second passes like a strobe light.

For many recruits, this is the first time they’ve had someone raise their voice at them. They’ve left their families and the outside world. They’re alone, and they’re vulnerable.

A perfect place to begin basic military training.

Memories from basic training

“The first day we got to basic [training], everyone got a phone call and everyone was crying,” Staff Sgt. Delroy Maronie said.

Maronie recalled the day he arrived at basic training. He was exhausted from the travel and the constant shouting of the military training instructors. Yet, he maintained his composure while he waited for other trainees to complete their final call to their families before the 2-month training began. Maronie watched as trainees met their families’ voices with tears, overcome by pressure and anxiety. 

In basic training, every day is a chance for military instructors to teach discipline by breaking down recruits and rebuilding them as efficient members of the U.S. military. The ability to work under pressure is crucial to any military role. Often enlisted members are put in command of valuable personnel and assets.

The inability to lead and perform in a high-stress environment is not an option. 

Maronie remembered when he was once caught laughing at the mistake of another trainee. He was separated from his fellow trainees in the ranks and stood at attention. He plastered his arms to his sides, put his feet together and focused his eyes on a point in the distance.

He remained motionless while the instructor made him an example of discipline. The instructor told him he would not make it through basic training with his attitude of ambivalence and ordered him to march behind the flight. 

“I was humiliated that day,” Maronie said. “For two days, I had to march behind the flight and earn my way back.”

Enlisting in the U.S. military requires perseverance and a diligent mind. Recruits are held to a high standard to meet physical training and mental fortitude requirements. Through classroom instruction, marching and survival scenarios, recruits learn the value of attention to detail.

“I had something minorly incorrect with my uniform or something,” Master Sgt. John Davis said. “I just remember my drill instructor just kind of laying into me about how I can’t even get this right and I am expected to load bombs onto an aircraft.”

Davis has been a part of the enlisted force for 15 years. He joined the U.S. Air Force with the hope of finding direction and purpose in his life after dropping out of college. His time at basic training transformed him into a detailed-oriented and goal-driven airman. 

Davis recounted his graduation from basic training. Trainees stood at parade rest, their eyes fixed 10 degrees above the horizon. From the corner of his eye, he saw friends and family members release other trainees from their formation. His mind raced with excitement as he entered his last moments of training. When Davis’s mother reached his eye line, he knew he was a single touch away from telling her about the man he had become.

“It’s a rush of emotions … It’s a lot to deal with at the time,” Davis said.

What comes next?

Since his graduation, Davis has traveled to the Middle East and finished his degree. He holds the position of mission crew supervisor on the EC-130H, a $165 million aircraft, according to Aero Corner. Airmen look up to him as one of the highest-ranked non-commissioned officers.

As a high-ranking enlisted member, Davis helps guide new lieutenants as they start their careers. His experience allows him to mentor these young officers in confidently leading the other enlisted members. The impact of his mentorship reminds him of the importance of his role.

“The enlisted force of today’s Air Force is a lot different than the enlisted force of the 1980s or ‘90s,” Davis said. “Our enlisted force is more educated, more technically savvy than it’s ever been.”

Yet, even with the success story that Davis provides, the rate of those enlisting in the military has decreased significantly. The Pew Research Center reports that less than 1% of the U.S. adult population commits their lives to service for their country. 

“I think it comes down to the generation and maybe because the economy was so great,” Staff Sgt. Charles Mason said.

Mason is the North Carolina Army National Guard recruiting liaison at UNC-Chapel Hill. In his 13 years of service, Mason trained under the army police and was deployed to Afghanistan. While he credits the military with providing benefits and reliable employment, he isn’t afraid to admit that being enlisted is very different from the movies and YouTube ads.

Mason remembered his arrival in Afghanistan. As he crossed the runway, he saw scorch marks burned into the airstrip. He was told that an aircraft had crashed earlier that day, killing four service members. 

That night his team was hit with mortars.

Service demands sacrifice, and some are still willing to accept that challenge.

From service to student

Caimile Lane takes classes alongside hundreds of other UNC-CH students. Yet, few know that she served four years in the U.S. Air Force before going back to school for a degree in political science.

At Lane’s high school, few graduates chose to enter the military. A four-year university was prescribed to any senior aiming for success. But for Lane, money could not be wasted on years still deciding what she wanted to do. She needed to make a decision that gave her life experiences and financial stability. 

“I think it was more so that people were surprised and a little confused, especially when I feel like in our society, we’re just so programmed to do what’s always been done and not to try something different,” Lane said. “If it fails or it’s not for me, at least I know.”

Lane was deployed to South Korea. It was her first time outside the country, thousands of miles away from any sense of familiarity. 

As a weather specialist, Lane was trusted to predict weather patterns that would ensure the success of U.S. Air Force missions. Lane was responsible for airmen’s lives and thousands of dollars of equipment. She briefed officers and high-ranking enlisted members on forecasts.

From her experience, Lane said, when she told people she was going into the military, they assumed she was not offered admission or didn’t want to attend college.

“I was always open to trying something different,” Lane said. 

Lane had the opportunity to work with members from all branches, enlisted and officers. Her experiences helped her form relationships, sealed with stories of survival.

Lane recalled her final day in South Korea. Frantically, she searched for her wallet which contained her passport and ID. It was gone, and she was stranded. Yet, across branches, a U.S. Army enlisted member stepped up to help.

“She took me back to a local base with her husband,” Lane said. “They gave me new IDs and everything I needed. It showed me how this lady and her family didn’t know me at all but, at the end of the day, I was still going to be taken care of because we are all one big military, one big family looking out for each other.”

As part of the 1%, Lane is dedicated to supporting other enlisted members in the military. She plans to enter the U.S. Air Force as a force support officer, leading enlisted members in meeting the needs of the United States.

“Going enlisted first, it just allowed me to experience the real world sooner,” Lane said. “It definitely adds a very unique experience and perspective to the way I view the world.”

Edited by Anna Neil and Valeria Cloës.

Stories from home: UNC students grapple with ongoing war in Ukraine

By Lorelai Sykes

One year later, another spring settles over Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Dogwood trees reveal their pink and white blooms as baby birds and squirrels dart out between the parade of bare legs stretching out after winter. Spring usually brings change and rebirth, but there are still some darker things that manage to stick around. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022. It has been a year full of displacement, worries and fear. Now headlines about the war fade into the background and give the facade that things are getting better.

Even across oceans, students in Chapel Hill with ties to Ukraine and Russia are still navigating the lasting effects of the war.

Protecting her son: Liubov Palchak

Liubov Palchak is a graduate student studying pharmaceutical sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, and her story of how she came to North Carolina is far from anything she ever expected for herself.

From the easternmost parts of the country, Palchak was born in Bakhmut. It is a small town located in the Donetsk Oblast region of Ukraine. Her family lived across the Donetsk Oblast region, so pointing to any one area as “home” is tricky.

“I was like every child in the world, I had a perfect childhood,” Palchak said. “My native city was not too big and everybody knew each other, and neighbors were friendly. I moved back to Bakhmut when my son was born, it is easier with little kids to be in small towns. I think a lot of good things happened in Bakhmut.”

While pursuing her undergraduate degree, she spent a few years moving around Ukraine. After attending Donetsk National Medical University, she entered the workforce at the same university, tending to medical needs in multiple cities.

With some inspiration from her parents working in chemistry and microbiology, Palchak said that in 11th grade, she knew she wanted to pursue medicine. She said that if she could improve people’s quality of life, she had to act on it.

But today, her hometown of Bakhmut and the Donetsk region as a whole is one of the most occupied areas of Ukraine. Palchak has lived with the threat of Russian forces since 2014, but now, it is significantly worse. Last year, she made the final, gut-wrenching decision to flee the country.

She knew she had to protect herself and her son Misha.

“After the first bomb dropped in Kramatorsk airport, I realized I did not have a nearby safety place,” Palchak said. “I read a lot of papers that said that Russia could try again. I realized that if it started I must find some type of safety.”

On March 2, 2022, Palchak made her way to immigration services.

She did not just leave behind her home and place of work: She also left behind her husband, who works to distribute electricity to citizens; her father, who is still teaching chemistry but online after his school was destroyed; and many more family members.

Still, even after all of this, she is quick to bring up again how grateful she is to be in North Carolina. Through a smile, she said Misha is learning English better than she is and that he is so lucky to be at school in person rather than online like children still in Ukraine.

With a two-year visa inching closer to expiration, Palchak does not know what will come next. But for now, she and Misha are safe. 

Summers at home: Lily Fishman

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is hardly a new phenomenon. Attacks and the threat of invasion have steadily increased throughout the early 2010s. For U.S. citizens with family abroad, the option of international travel and family visitation has slowly fizzled out. 

Lily Fishman is an undergraduate student at UNC-CH. Her father is from Moscow, Russia, while her mother is from Zarichne, Ukraine. Throughout her childhood, she spent summers visiting her family in Russia and Ukraine, fond memories that she holds a little tighter today.

“We would stay at a family friend’s house in very rural Ukraine,” Fishman said. “There was a mountain up there, and we would go and pick blackberries and cherries up there.”

While laughing, she said that after picking berries on the mountainside, she would go into town with her little brother under the care of an older friend, who was rather reluctant to leave his video game, to go into the candy stores with just a handful of hryvnia, the Ukrainian equivalent to a United States cent.

For Fishman, it helped that the constant buzz of reporting about the war has died down. Most efforts on campus — like signed Ukrainian flags on display — have not offered her much solace. Rather, aid efforts to support those directly affected in Ukraine bring some peace of mind.

Fishman managed a fundraiser last semester that brought her some peace by sending over medical supplies such as bandages and ointments that were in demand during the start of the war.

 Phone calls to Ukraine: Mykhailo “Misha” Shvets

As the conflict wears on, students on campus carry an insurmountable weight with them daily.

Mykhailo “Misha” Shvets is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Computer Science. He waved and pointed to his phone, mumbling a quick goodbye to his mother on the other line.

“Before the war, I used to only call her about once a week for maybe 30 minutes,” Shvets said. “But now we talk multiple times a week, maybe for hours at a time.” 

Shvets is from the city of Dnipro, where his mother still resides today. His father lives in Kyiv with his two young children. In a piece written by Shvets in May of last year, he described the hurt he feels daily.

“Every day since Feb. 24 for me, as for all Ukrainians, has been filled with endless pain watching as cities are destroyed and civilians tortured, raped and murdered.” In another excerpt, he wrote, “My father made dangerous trips every day to find a place with some poor cell phone connection to get news and send a few texts like:

“They fired mortars over our heads, now enemy tanks are firing a little from the side — loud explosions. About 200 meters from us.”

Shvets came to the U.S. to pursue his doctoral degree. Before the war, he walked into Sitterson Hall with his head down and buried in his work, making his way straight to his office. Shvets said there are not many students in the program from Europe, especially not Ukraine.

Now, a year later, he said he has found a community of Ukrainians in North Carolina. While the circumstances are far from ideal, he is now connecting with his culture more than ever before.

“On Feb. 24, 2023, we had a vigil again and hundreds of people showed up,” Shvets said. “I’m looking around the crowd at a few hundred people and I pretty much know everyone now.”

Shvets said that he understands that it is now his job to deliver a message to the people in the U.S. and to facilitate conversations about the conflict abroad. 

Shvets remembers Ukraine fondly. He recounted camping trips with his father in the mountains of Crimea and the hikes down to the beaches of the Black Sea, and how his mother still sends him care packages stuffed with candies from his childhood.

In one of his lengthy phone calls, he told her that he was wearing a Vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian shirt, every day until the occupation was over. The one he wore today was a delicate linen fabric embroidered with careful shades of blue stitching across his chest.

One year later, the pain and loss of the war still sits heavy in the humid spring air. Despite the loss that Ukrainians have suffered, another spring brings with it strength and resilience.

Edited by Valeria Cloës and Anna Neil.