From refugee to U.S. Army aviator:
Kosovo native achieves dream to serve, ‘give back’
2nd Lt. Valdeta Mehanja, a Kosovo native, receives her Wings as she graduates flight school at Fort Rucker, after a long journey from refugee to immigrant to Soldier to U.S. Army aviator. (Photo Credit: Kelly Morris) VIEW ORIGINAL

When 2nd Lt. Valdeta Mehanja walked across the stage at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum to graduate flight school in September, she was a long way from where her journey began.

Born in Kosovo, Mehanja and her family members fled their home country when she was only seven years old. She would grow up living as a refugee in Germany.

When she was a teenager, they returned home to Kosovo to try to put the pieces of their lives back together. They stood in line to be issued identification cards by the United Nations. There was no food, no money. Jobs were hard to come by. Roads were destroyed, their home would have to be rebuilt. Mehanja still had to finish high school.

“Being a refugee in Germany was hard, but I want to say it saved us. Because we were able to learn another language. We were able to become translators, and just be more competitive when it came to getting jobs,” she said.

She worked as a translator at a power plant and soon landed an IT job, at a time when the U.N. conducted apprenticeship programs teaching skills to people in Kosovo. Because she learned a new trade, she was able to eventually land a job working as a contractor in Iraq.

“I had already witnessed three wars, and I was only 22 years old. We still believed going to Iraq was safer than going to Kosovo,” Mehanja said.

Mehanja reflected on the war in Kosovo as a “terrible time” of ethnic cleansing.

“There are different ways to fight wars,” she said. “If you were not with the Serbs, you were against them. You would not have a job. We were literally starving. There were so many of us that would starve. My siblings and I would go to trash piles to try to find something that was left,” she said.

They were grateful for assistance from the United States.

“My older sister and mom would go to charity, Red Cross, there would be people from like Alabama that would send meals there. I support that so much because it helped us first hand. A can of beans will go a long way when you have nothing,” she said.

The opportunity to work in Iraq in 2004 included setting up the Internet in areas wherever there were missions, supporting a U.S. police training program for the Iraqis.

To travel, they would link up with military convoys. At one point, she rode along with a convoy to support a mission in Tikrit. On the way back to Baghdad the convoy was hit by an IED, and bullets were fired. Mehanja did not feel confident using her weapon or fighting an enemy that was attacking them.

“I wasn’t a trained Soldier, I had just done some qualification on my weapon, but that was about it,” she said.

She knew from previous attacks that people were usually killed in incidents like this one. She recalled thinking, “Well, I guess this is how it happens.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, hope arrived, from above.

“All the sudden this Apache (helicopter) came and started attacking the people that were shooting at us. We couldn’t see them, they were hiding behind bushes. And we were saved! They just saved us, and the way they did it was incredible. They became my heroes,” she said.

Looking up at a U.S. Army helicopter, Mehanja said to herself, “I want to do that.”

When a “fancy” life is being able to have enough food and maybe buy a pair of jeans, though, the idea of ever one day serving in the United States Army seems farfetched. But she believed God had a path for her.

As she continued on as a contractor in Afghanistan, she was told her job would be setting up radio communications. What she didn’t realize was the job would involve Huey helicopters.

“I was like--what? I will be able to touch a helicopter? I didn’t realize what I had signed up for. I loved the job, loved the mission,” she said.

For four years she worked to ensure the helicopters could communicate with each other and with base operations, supporting an international narcotics and law enforcement program for the State Department.

“I had to install antennas, run the cables, program all the frequencies, so I did frequency management as well. I loved the job, loved the mission. We were able to help fight terrorism. It was a very fulfilling job,” she said.

Being around the helicopters, and working frequently with the military, made her want to become a pilot even more.

When the contracting job came to an end, she had been able to help repair their family home, and save some money with the hope of getting an education in America. She was accepted at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and attended on a student visa, where she became a pilot in 2011. She continued to sacrifice her free time to work hard to become an instructor, and was hired by the university so she could remain in the States on a work visa.

As a fixed-wing civilian pilot, Mehanja competed in a national female cross-country air race in 2013 and 2014 that Amelia Earhart competed in years before, against approximately 50 other civilian planes. Mehanja and her copilot took home awards including first place in the collegiate category.

“I was able to see how beautiful America is. I learned a lot. It was another moment where I was like, there’s no way I’m able to participate in an air race and there’s not something more meant for me to do in Army Aviation. I knew then God is preparing me for something bigger. I knew it was the military,” she said.

She longed to serve to “return the favor” to those servicemembers who had saved her, and become a permanent citizen, but still needed a path to get there.

“The MAVNI program opened up, where if you spoke a certain language or had a special skill you could join the U.S. Army. My sister and I joined the program right away,” she said.

By 2015, she was now in her 30s, and intended to serve in the Reserve component because of her age, and pursue Army Aviation. But the recruiter told her there were no more available Reserve slots. Her option was active duty enlistment.

“This is your opportunity,” the recruiter told her.

She enlisted in the Army in 2015 to become a Black Hawk mechanic, even though it meant starting over in her 30s.

“I knew I would be one of the oldest in basic training, and it would be tough mentally and physically,” she said. ”But I didn’t want to miss that opportunity and regret it for the rest of my life.”

“I want to be there and help out, whenever there’s a fire, whenever there’s a war. I think that’s the big fear that I always had--to pass up on an opportunity and then regret it,” she said.

As an enlisted Soldier, she was eventually stationed in Germany, which completed a circle for her. Unlike her previous status as a refugee, now she could travel and see the country.

She continued to work on her packet to become an Army aviator, but faced hurdles with policy changes, and her clearance was taking longer than expected.

She deployed to Afghanistan, completing yet another circle for her.

“Now I’m back in Kandahar where I used to work as a third country national, which is the lowest status in the contracting world. It was so nice to be there in U.S. military uniform, and to be able to serve the country. It was a very fulfilling feeling,” she said.

She made the transition from active duty to Army National Guard in December 2018, and in 2019 she was enrolled in Officer Candidate School. By June, she would enter the gates to Fort Rucker, the home of Army Aviation, and finally begin flight school. She would realize her dream to become a Black Hawk pilot, after all.

“Things were just put in place. It was just perfect timing. Because they only have accelerated OCS twice a year in the Guard. I was able to make it. I would like to take credit, but I really think it’s a much bigger picture. I know that God has always led me,” she said.

Looking back, Mehanja said growing up the way she did instilled in her a belief in the benefits of education, and taught her to think for herself, to be independent and to not be afraid to ask for help.

In an Army focused on people as its priority, Mehanja's story is one of family courage. Two of her siblings also chose to serve, in the Army and Marine Corps. Her older sister married a former Marine, so they all have connections to U.S. military service.

As she looks to a new horizon serving with the Alabama National Guard, Mehanja said she appreciates the perspective all her experience has provided her—including as enlisted and officer, as a contractor, and to be able to serve in multiple Army components.

“I understand how enlisted works, how active duty works, now I’m going to learn how the Guard works,” she said. “I think it will give me a broader perspective of the military.”