Making New Friends in Estonia

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
Two Airmen. One young enough to be my son. Another old enough to be my father.

Make it three Airmen. One in an American uniform - me - and two Estonians.

I was leading a tour at Amari Air Base in Estonia. That's where the Michigan Air National Guard deployed a group of Airmen and several of our aircraft for a couple of weeks to support Saber Strike 2012, a multi-national exercise based in Estonia and neighboring Latvia. As part of the partnership building exercise, I was leading tours of our A-10 Thunderbolt II and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft for Estonian military personnel.

Before the tour began on the second day, an older man came up to me. He gripped my hand, shook it and held it. He stared straight into my eyes.

"I was forced to retire last month because I am now 70 years old," he said. "But I came back for this day. The U.S. Air Force is on my base. This has been my dream since our independence. This is a great day."

Estonia was part of the Soviet Union for about 50 years after World War II. It was not a happy arrangement, according to the Estonians I talked to during my two weeks in Estonia. The Estonians gained their independence in 1991. Since then, they have been working to build up their Air Force.

The retired Airman was a big part of that effort, I believe. His pride in his country and his Air Force - and his pride in working with my Air Force - made me try to stand a little taller. In a conversation that lasted a mere minute, I knew I was talking with a man who lived through the bad times and worked hard to help create the good times. His patriotism - and his Air Force pride - were obvious. Truth be told, I think I got a bit more emotional about it than he did.

As we finished up the tour - after we visited with the crew chiefs and walked around the aircraft - I was chatting with a couple of the younger Estonian Airmen as we walked back to the operations building.

One asked when I first joined the American military. Hard to believe it was more than a quarter of a century ago, but it was. Dec. 21, 1984, to be exact. I'm guessing that I probably swore in before my young Estonian counterpart was born -- maybe even a few years before. Just a hunch, but a pretty strong one.

"What is the trend in your Air Force?" he asked, as we walked off the flight line. "Is it getting better or getting worse?"

I thought about his question for a moment. And then I thought about the retired Airman, so happy, so proud to shake my hand.

"I think my Air Force is getting better," I said. "When I first joined the Air Force, your country was part of the Soviet Union and our countries were enemies. Today, we are friends."

Young Airmen don't always have the wisdom of old Airmen. But this one did.

"Yes," he said. "It is better to be friends than enemies."

Yes, indeed. Let the friendship begin.