AUGUSTA, Mich. – People join the military for various reasons, ranging from educational benefits to a desire to travel. One Michigan Army National Guard Soldier, who emigrated from Ukraine, joined to give back to the United States, which has provided for his family.
“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. “While I lived in Ukraine, I finished my degree in railroad engineering and began operating cargo and passenger trains before switching to subway trains.”
Around the age of 28, Zelenskiy, his wife, and their small child made the change of a lifetime and moved 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, he befriended a coworker who helped pave the path to where he is 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.”
That visit changed Zelenskiy’s life.
“He said he was back in the service and I should check it out,” he 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. For Zelenskiy, this wasn’t his first time serving in an army. 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 2009-2010, he deployed to Iraq, serving as a member of a convoy security team. While in Iraq and after living in the United States for 10 years, he applied for and received his U.S. citizenship. Since Iraq, he began working in Active Duty Operational Support (ADOS) positions in the Michigan Army National Guard, ultimately working up to his current position.
“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, he 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,” Zelenskiy said.
His passion for vehicles extends to his oldest son as well.
“My oldest son was about 3 years old when we moved here,” he 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.”
Zelenskiy is appreciative of the opportunities.
“I am grateful for what this country has given me,” he said. “I have nothing but blessings,” he said. “Serving will be my payback to this country.”