97 MDG SNCO’s Ukrainian heritage supports coalition talks

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Miyah Gray
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

As a teenager starting a new life in the United States, Yuriy Papayanki never imagined that, as a Ukrainian immigrant, he’d one day be a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. Nor did he imagine that those two worlds would one day come together.

Papayanki immigrated from Ukraine to Kansas with his mother at the age of 15. Even though they were middle class in Ukraine, they were considered poor in the U.S. because of socioeconomic differences.

He got a job as a babysitter to help support his family and, after graduating high school, a regular “nine to five” job. Due to being in such close proximity to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, he made friends with local Airmen who helped influence his decision to join the Air Force.

Papayanki knew he wanted to continue in his passion to help others, so he decided to become a medic. Now, as a medical administration technician at the 97th Healthcare Operations Squadron, he is the Airman that helps other medics perform healthcare operations on base from medical readiness to patient administration.

During a recent deployment, war broke out between Russia and Ukraine - a conflict that struck Papayanki deeply. As such, he immediately began searching for ways to help.

“When I heard about the conflict in Ukraine, there was so much emotion initially,” said Papayanki. “I could barely sleep for two weeks when all this started. Even though I consider myself an American, I still feel an attachment to Ukraine. It's been very, very painful to see what's going on there. That’s why I definitely try to support our mission there to help the Ukrainian people as much as I can.”

Papayanki’s background and willingness to help earned him a unique opportunity during his deployment: to serve as a translator for Kostiantyn Stanislavchuk, Chief Master Sergeant of the Ukrainian Air Force, at the Senior Enlisted Leader International Summit of 2022.

During this event, senior leaders worldwide discussed their perspectives on security cooperation and national defense strategies to enhance partner interoperability, and to discuss issues affecting the international community of enlisted Airmen and further build relationships.

“I was born in Ukraine and that's something they were looking for when trying to find a person to accompany the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force for Ukrainian Forces,” he said. “They wanted someone with a similar background so that they could establish a connection with this individual. I am not a professional interpreter. I speak different languages, but I work at the medical group, so this was kind of a cool experience for me to be able to learn something new.”

Lt. Col. Sylvia Kim, 97th HCOS commander, described Papayanki as multifaceted, flexible and resilient in the work that he does from his language and leadership skills to his subject matter expertise.

“As a senior (noncommissioned officer) in our career field, he has to adapt, and that's very consistent with my experience with Master Sgt. Papayanki. He will just go somewhere and adapt,” said Kim. “He is a multi-capable Airman, also multi-dimensional. He has the language skills, the leadership skills, and subject matter expertise in many functional areas… so he's able to represent us in all those factors.”

As Papayanki reflects on his journey from a boy in Ukraine to where he is today, he sees a common value: service before self.

“It’s crazy to think about where we started in 2003 after we moved,” he said. “From not having anything and barely any money, to my mom having her own business and me being a Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force. I love my Airmen, serving my people and supporting people as much as I can. (I do) really cool things and help out in a big way.”