FARKE AIRFIELD, Albania – If there is someone who knows about hard work and determination, it's 2nd Lt. Valdeta Mehanja, a pilot with the 1-131st Aviation Regiment. Mehanja is an Albanian native born in Kosovo and a U.S. citizen; she never thought she would get to see Albania.
"I have never visited Albania before. It's an incredible feeling to be here, as a pilot, in uniform and in the U.S. military," she said. "I would have never gotten this opportunity to fly around Albania if it wasn't for the military. To be able to experience this just made me so happy."
Mehanja says this mission feels like "completing a circle." She grew up poor and her family became refugees of war, leaving behind what little they owned to survive violent conflict. Years later, as a contractor for the Department of Defense, her convoy traveling to Bagdad was ambushed by improvised explosive devices and gunfire.
"I thought that was it," she said in an interview. However, she was saved by American pilots, and she knew that was what she wanted to do.
"It made me want to join aviation. I knew I had a bigger mission. I couldn't just be a regular person and not give back."
Since then, Mehanja has achieved that goal and become a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot for the U.S. Army. She felt the circle would soon be complete when she heard the 1-131st was going to Albania to participate in DEFENDER-Europe 21 (Defender 21).
"I was so excited. I couldn't believe that the Guard unit I joined was going to Albania," she said. "I didn't realize how beautiful this country really is until I got to fly around the mountains. I don't think I could have visited Albania in a better way."
Mehanja feels strongly about Defender 21, which is her first mission flying outside the U.S.
"Defender 21 is a sign of alliance," she said. "Even during a pandemic, we are able to show how we can quickly move to another county and work with other militaries and build partnerships."
Since arriving in Albania, Mehanja has flown missions and served as an interpreter and cultural adviser to the Americans and Albanians working together. She says she has been happy to take on the extra tasks.
"If we work together, we will be stronger together," she explained. "I think keeping that partnership and continuing missions and training together will open up a whole other window to experience other cultures."
Outside these duties, Mehanja has become somewhat of a local celebrity. She's met with hundreds of locals, been interviewed by numerous news sources, met U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim, and shook hands with Albanian President Ilir Meta.
"It meant so much that they're acknowledging how difficult my journey was and that they're proud I'm here and working together with them," she said. "It was a very special moment for me, and I'll never forget it. I'll cherish it for the rest of my life."
Mehanja said her family is incredibly proud of her and shocked at how things turned out in Albania.
"It is a huge deal," she exclaimed, "I don't think my mom, who was not allowed to go to school, would have ever thought that her daughter would be shaking hands with an Albanian president. My family is just so proud that I was able to come here as a U.S. military pilot and work with the Albanians and that I get to help."
Despite all of this, she remains humble and hopes her story can inspire others and help build friendships between her nations.
"Anything is possible if you work hard for it. Just when you think you can't accomplish something because the journey is too tough, that doesn't mean it's impossible and that it'll never happen," she said. "I was able to do this despite the odd against me. Anyone can do it, too. I'm hoping everyone will be inspired to succeed in their goals."
Mehanja doesn't believe she would be as successful without the 1-131st Aviation Regiment and the Alabama National Guard.
"I seriously have the best unit. I have the best commander. I have been so incredibly lucky. They have allowed me to have this experience, to be a part of this. It was God's work and everyone here that made this possible, and I want to thank them."