AUGUSTA, Mich. – People join the military for various reasons. Some to fulfill a family legacy of service, others for the educational benefits and some even for the ability to travel. But one Michigan Army National Guard Soldier joined to give back to the United States.
“I was born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, when it was part of the Soviet Union before gaining its independence,” said Sgt. 1st Class Sergey Zelenskiy, senior instructor with the 177th Regiment, Regional Training Institute, Michigan Army National Guard.
Around the age of 28, Zelenskiy, his wife and their small child changed their lives and emigrated to the United States. “We moved here in 1999,” he said. “My wife has relatives in Michigan who are refugees from the Soviet Union, and that is why we moved to Traverse City.”
Zelenskiy immediately began working to provide a better life for his family.
“When I first came to the United States, I started working in construction, and I really began learning the English language,” he said. “I worked construction for a couple of years until the economy took a dive and was laid off. I began working maintenance for apartments and worked about 75 hours a week at two jobs.”
While working in construction, Zelenskiy befriended a coworker who helped lead him to the path he walks today.
“One of the guys I worked with in construction is a former Army Ranger,” he said. “After we got laid off, I didn’t see him for a couple of years, and one day, I stopped by to visit him and saw military uniforms and asked him about them.” This visit changed Zelenskiy's life.
“He said he was back in the service and I should check it out,” Zelenskiy said. “I thought if I joined the Michigan National Guard, it would be extra income, plus it’s a nice thing to do for this country. This country has been great to me.”
In 2007, Zelenskiy enlisted in the National Guard and shipped off to basic training. This wasn't his first time in uniform through. While living in Ukraine, he served in the Soviet Army from 1990 to 1992, reaching the rank of senior sergeant.
Zelenskiy enlisted as a general equipment operator before changing his military occupational specialty to become a plumber-pipefitter. In 2009 and 2010, he deployed to Iraq, serving as a member of a convoy security team.
While in Iraq Zelenskiy applied for and received his U.S. citizenship. Upon returning to America, he began working in active-duty operational support, or ADOS, positions in the Michigan Army National Guard. “I started working ADOS for about three years, then was hired in the Active Guard Reserve program in 2014. I have about 14 years of active-duty time,” he said.
As a senior instructor, Zelenskiy mentors other Soldiers as they progress through their careers. “Right now, I teach the Rough Terrain Container Handler Course, Advanced Leadership Course, Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic Course and Combat Recovery for Wheeled Vehicles,” he said.
Zelenskiy's vehicle expertise is due in part to education he received before emigrating. “While I lived in Ukraine, I finished my degree in railroad engineering and began operating cargo and passenger trains before switching to subway trains,” he said.
The passion for vehicles appears to run in the family. “My oldest son was about 3 years old when we moved here,” Zelenskiy said. “He is 25 years old now, and a year after high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and is going on his sixth year, working as a vehicle operator and dispatcher at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.”
“I am grateful for what this country has given me,” said Zelenskiy. “I have nothing but blessings. Serving will be my payback to this country.”