Why We Serve: Captain Helps Americans Relate to Troops

By Jim Garamone

American Forces Press Service  

March 7, 2008 – Air Force Capt. Edward V. Szczepanik thinks his experiences — both good and bad — can help the American people understand the challenges servicemembers face in the war on terror.  The captain, a C-17 Globemaster III transport jet pilot based at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., is one of 12 servicemembers who have deployed in the war on terror who were selected to be part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public-outreach program.

He is traveling the country, telling his story to community, business and veterans group audiences and at other gatherings.  Now in its sixth quarterly iteration, the outreach program conceived by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace underscores an effort by the Defense Department to bridge gaps between military and civilian cultures.

The program is apolitical by design, and speakers do not address department policies; rather, each member offers Americans a glimpse of military life as seen through the eyes of someone in uniform.  Szczepanik was part of 8th Airlift Squadron operating out of Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan.  “We flew in and out of Afghanistan, Kuwait and other bases in Central Asia and the Middle East,” Szczepanik said. “We delivered personnel and supplies to U.S. and NATO forces.  

Kyrgyzstan became independent following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Manas is the main point of entry for troops entering and leaving Afghanistan. Szczepanik and his unit deployed there for four months.  The captain said he wants to talk with audiences about life in the military and life overseas. “There are many people who don’t know anyone in the military,” he said. “It’s important for them to know what we do and why we do it.” The American people need to understand that servicemembers are all volunteers, “and that we’re normal people,” he said.  

Szczepanik said he always knew he wanted to be in the Air Force. His grandfather served in the Army Air Forces during World War II as a maintenance technician on P-51 Mustangs. Szczepanik is from Columbus, Ohio, and was commissioned out of the ROTC program at Miami (Ohio) University in 2003.  He will let audiences know what he and his crew did in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. “I’ll talk about conditions in and around Manas and what I saw when I flew into Afghanistan,” he said. “We didn’t get off the air bases, but I can tell them about the conditions that airmen work under in country and how they live.  “What impressed me was the servicemembers at these bases (in Afghanistan) do as much, if not more, than we do at established bases in the States, but with a lot less,” Szczepanik said.  

He said he also wants to give Americans an idea of the cultures that U.S. servicemembers operate in. At Manas, the captain and other airmen volunteered to help a local school. “Our job was to mow the grass in the playground,” he said. “I figured we’d be given old manual push mowers. But no. The principal of the school handed us sickles and sharpening stones,” he continued. “I’m Midwest born and bred, and while I’ve seen pictures, I’ve never used one.

We did the job, but it was a learning experience.”  Szczepanik also will tell U.S. audiences of the cost of war. “My last mission in Afghanistan was a human remains mission,” he said. “We took a fallen Special Forces officer out of Bagram (Air Base, Afghanistan) to Manas for transfer back to the States.”  

There is a ceremony plane-side as an honor guard loads the remains on the aircraft. “After the ceremony was finished, members of his unit came up and shook each of our hands and said thank you and told us to take care of him,” Szczepanik said. “For me, of all the experiences I had during the deployment, it was the most emotional and most eye-opening. It showed me what the cost for freedom is and the sacrifices people are making. It really meant a lot to me that I could be a part of that.”


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