SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. - Like many new enlistees in the Michigan Air National Guard, Airman 1st Class Elvira Shani considers the Air Force to be a part of her family.
For Shani, having an Air Force family is extra important because the rest of her family is 5,000 miles away, in Albania.
Shani recently completed Basic Military Training and began work with the Services Flight of the 127th Force Support Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.
Beginning to serve in the Michigan Air National Guard also provides Shani with the opportunity to pay homage to her own family heritage of military service and a way to say thank you to America for the opportunities she's had since she immigrated to the USA from Albania in 2002.
"It was very hard for me when I first come here," Shani said. "I did not know anyone and I did not know any English.
"But I come from a poor family where it was the dream of many people to come to the United States for a better life," she said.
Shani was born at a time when Albania was a communist nation, run by a hard-line repressive regime that opposed the United States. In 1998, a democratic government was instituted in Albania, guaranteeing the protection of human rights for its citizens. Four years later, Shani decided the time was right to move to the U.S.
She legally immigrated to the U.S., traveling by herself, knowing no one in her new country, but determined to find and make that better life. She initially settled in Ohio, but after about a year heard of an opportunity for a job in the Detroit region and moved north. Often working two jobs and also taking classes to learn English, her life in America slowly began to take shape.
She worked in restaurants, nursing homes, factories, always looking to advance, to improve her language skills and to grab hold of that American dream. About five years ago, she achieved a big piece of that dream: she became a U.S. citizen. Later, she got a job with the state, working as a resident care aide in a psychiatric hospital.
And then she decided it was time to do something to pay America back for how well things had worked out.
She walked into the 127th Wing's Recruiting Office and met Tech. Sgt. Kevin Shirkey, a recruiter for the Michigan National Guard. Shani's desire and drive to serve in the Air National Guard was obvious, Shirkey said. But there was a problem. A potential deal breaker.
Shani was rapidly approaching her 40th birthday - the drop-dead, no-kidding cut-off date for a new enlistee.
"We really had to scramble to get her in," Shirkey said. "But she wanted it bad enough, that we had to make it happen."
Shani's family back home in Albania has a history of military service through the men on her father's side of the family. Despite that history, initially her father told Shani not to enlist.
"My father told me 'Don't do it. Now it is too late.' But he did not understand how much I wanted to do this," Shani said. "This country has done a lot for me. I wanted to give back in any way I can. I wanted to be in the armed forces to do that."
So on the day before her 40th birthday - when she was 39 years, 364 days old - Elvira Shani took the oath, promising to serve her new country and to protect it from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Initially, Shani began serving with the 127th Wing's Student Flight, in which new Michigan ANG Airmen work on a variety of paperwork issues and begin learning the basics of military life, even before attending Basic Military Training.
In the fall of 2013, she traveled to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the home of Air Force Basic Military Training.
"I think he was surprised when he saw me," Shani says of her military training instructor, Tech. Sgt. Julius Levy. "I knew that I was older than all the MTIs."
In fact, Shani would mark a milestone while in basic that few ever celebrate in the barracks at Lackland - her 41st birthday.
It was language, however, that she said was her biggest barrier.
Shani did not start learning English until her arrival in America when she was in her early 30s. Today, though she speaks English, she has a heavy accent.
"I was determined not to be a step behind," Shani said.
"I consider myself lucky. My MTI wanted me to become an Airman," she said.
Training instructors at Lackland do not comment on individual trainees, but officials there stated it is the goal of the BMT program to provide each recruit with the tools he or she needs to be a successful Airman.
"I believe that I am finding a family in the Air Force," Shani said. "This is important to me, because my own family is so very far away. I have found very nice people in services that I work with at Selfridge."