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The Airman and the refugee

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joshua Hastings
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Over two years ago, the U.S. Air Force contributed toward the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in American history. Operation Allies Refuge saw more than 120,000 Afghan citizens evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan in response to the Taliban’s effort to take over the country.

For Senior Airman Bryan Arias-Mejia, assisting with the operation and helping the refugees in their time of need provided a perspective that connected him with his family’s roots.

Arias-Mejia is a KC-135 Stratotanker boom operator for the 91st Air Refueling Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base. He was serving on deployment with the 91st ARS at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar when he received unexpected news.

“We were supposed to come home the day after the Taliban took over Afghanistan,” Arias-Mejia said. “I had just landed from a flight when the news broke out. Our commander sent a mass message to us which said, ‘This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do as commander, but it pains me to say that we are being extended with no definitive point of return.’ That crushed a lot of people because we already had a few crews on crew rest ready to wake up in a few hours to go home.”

Arias-Mejia said that the 91st ARS ‘took it on the chin’ and quickly regained morale. The Airmen understood that it was their duty to complete this new task in alignment with the needs of the Air Force and adjusted for the refueling operations to come.

For nearly a month, the squadron refueled a variety of cargo and fighter aircraft so that thousands of Afghan citizens could escape the danger that threatened their home behind. When Arias-Mejia was not delivering fuel in the air, he was providing aid to the refugees in the hangars at Al Udeid AB.

“While we were volunteering, [refugees] would come to us asking if we had seen their relatives,” Arias-Mejia said. “It was heartbreaking for us to have to tell them that we did not know where they were.”

Arias-Mejia helped clear a large gymnasium on the installation to establish additional space for the refugees to sleep. He assisted them with their meals and provided them with toiletries and other items they needed throughout their stay.

“Qatar is super hot,” Arias-Mejia said. “We were sweating all day while trying to keep everything under control. These people were desperate to get out of Afghanistan.”

The emotional toll of the operation left an imprint on Arias-Mejia. Refueling the aircraft that transported the refugees and interacting with them at Al Udeid AB allowed him to better understand his own upbringing.

“[Operation Allies Refuge] made me think about my dad’s experience and have a bigger respect for him,” Arias-Mejia said. “He had to flee his home like the [Afghan citizens] had to flee their home. I would never want anyone to have to go through that.”

Arias-Mejia is the son of Salvadoran parents. At the height of the Salvadoran Civil War, a conflict lasting from 1979 to 1992, Arias-Mejia’s then 16-year-old father fled to the United States to escape having to fight with Communist guerrilla rebel groups against the Salvadoran government.

“My father told me that as a child he could not be too loud out of fear of being heard by the guerrillas,” Arias-Mejia said. “They would go door to door in search of people to join them. My grandparents would tell the guerrillas that they did not have children while my father would hide to avoid being taken.”

Arias-Mejia also added that his grandparents had given his father specific instructions on how to respond to armed men if ever approached by them. His father was to provide the guerrillas with false identification and to say he belonged to a different family that the guerrillas would not want to be involved with. A constant state of panic and unrest consumed the Arias family.

Because of the conflict in El Salvador, Arias-Mejia’s father was unable to graduate from high school and pursue education. His father found work in construction and eventually settled down near Washington D.C. with his wife and three children.

While growing up near the U.S. capital, Arias-Mejia lived in a home ingrained with Salvadoran culture, family values, a respect for God and an emphasis of pursuing education.

“I did not grow up in a super strict home, but school was important,” Arias-Mejia said. “One of my dad’s biggest rules was that we had to go to school five days a week, bring home good grades and be one of the top students in class. My dad would tell us, ‘I did not have the opportunity to focus on school so you need to take advantage of it.’”

Arias-Mejia felt the pressures of his father’s wishes, especially after graduating from high school.

“I was taking classes in community college for a little bit, but it was getting hard and I had to work two jobs just to be able to breathe,” Arias-Mejia said. “Education was my biggest motivation for joining the Air Force. No one in my family has ever graduated college.”

Enlisting in the Air Force was not the path Arias-Mejia’s parents had envisioned for him. They feared that military service would ensure their son would see combat operations, and they did not want their son to live away from home.

From the time Arias-Mejia enlisted to today, his parents have developed new opinions about his Air Force service.

“My dad now sees [my enlistment] as a necessary sacrifice I had to make to level up in life,” Arias-Mejia said. “My mom loves sharing with her coworkers that her son is in the military and that he’s been to places like Japan and Qatar. Every time I see my dad now it seems like he is wearing some sort of Air Force shirt. He is always asking me if I have any shirts that I can give him.”

Now at 25 years old, Arias-Mejia is able to balance his duties with the 91st ARS with taking online classes through tuition assistance. Although Arias-Mejia’s motivation for joining the Air Force stemmed from his desire to pursue education and make his family proud, he has gained much more from his experience in the service. His involvement with Operation Allies Refuge has given him a window to look through to see the world in a way similar to the way his father had seen it as a refugee.

“Seeing innocent people die, leaving everything behind while moving to an unknown place and starting over was a very traumatic experience,” said Carlos Arias, Bryan’s father. “The life I want for my children is for them to become professionals and do good in the world so that they never have to suffer what I suffered. What makes me most proud about Bryan is considering everything our family has gone through, he has still accomplished so much. I never thought I would have a son who would be flying on a military jet in the Air Force, traveling the world and seeing many different countries. It was painful watching him leave home, but I think all that pain was worth it because he is now going far in life and will accomplish more.”