By Heather Heiney | 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Being stationed in a place that is dark and frozen for months every year demands resilience. Staff Sgt. Yakov Kim, 12th Space Warning Squadron crew chief, has exemplified that resilience while at Thule Air Base, Greenland.
Kim was born in Uzbekistan in 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, his father was an airline pilot, his mother was a business owner, and they were a family of Christian Koreans living in a primarily Islamic nation. Kim said that because of the discrimination they faced, his parents struggled in post-Soviet Uzbekistan for years, finally immigrating to the United States in May of 2000.
“The combination of corruption and persecution drove my parents to abandon their careers and businesses and move to the United States,” Kim said. “At that time, I didn’t understand the exact reasons why my parents decided to move and what they were giving up to give me a better future.”
Kim’s family settled in Florida, where he became a citizen through the Green Card program and joined the Air Force in 2013.
“I think having grown up overseas has given me a unique outlook of the world,” Kim said. “I believe diversity is one of the main reasons why we are such an effective fighting force.”
Kim’s family disapproved of his military service at first, he said, but he knew he wanted to make a difference in the world and protect his new homeland.
“I knew the United States military is a force for good, and I’m proud to wear the uniform,” Kim said. “I explained to them what difference we make here at home and overseas, and they are amazed and honored to have their son in [the] U.S. Armed Forces.”
Kim said that joining the Air Force was the best choice he has made in his life because it gave him the opportunity to travel the world and be responsible for a bi-national crew. That crew, also known as the Bravo Bad Boyz, operates the Upgraded Early Warning Radar to support the 12th SWS missions of missile warning, missile defense and space surveillance.
“I think our missions are important because the consequences of failure are so grave,” Kim said.
If the members of Kim’s team don’t do their job correctly, he said, the Missile Warning Center may not receive information in time to alert civilian populations of an incoming threat, and if they pass incorrect observations to the 18th Space Control Squadron, satellites could collide in space.
“I enjoy my job because I feel like I’m at the vanguard of human space development,” Kim said. “In the future, I can tell my kids that I played a part in the creation of global high-speed satellite internet and supported lunar exploration. Space is definitely the future of humanity.”
Capt. Max Bierman, 12th SWS crew commander, said there was a time when the crew was stormed in at their radar site for five days on night shifts. He said Kim never faltered in getting the work done, despite the fact that they were sleeping at the site and working beyond their rotation. Staff Sgt. Payton Pelzel, another member of the team, said Kim’s positive attitude has made a difference in their work center and that he’s a dedicated and committed worker.
“Our crew has endured over 100 hours of being stuck in our work center because of winter storms,” Pelzel said. “When you’re working through your scheduled weekend or not being able to sleep in your own bed, the only thing keeping your spirits up are your fellow crewmates’ attitudes.”
Pelzel also said that Kim’s attitude and optimism really helped during those times because he helped keep their minds off the negatives of being stuck at work. Together, he said, their crew laughed their way through minus 40 degree and colder temperatures and more than 50 mile per hour winds.
“If in some unforeseen circumstance he was charged with running a 12-hour shift by himself operating the radar up at Thule, he could do it,” Bierman said. “It wouldn’t be enjoyable, and he’d probably be run ragged, but he could do it and I would sleep just fine knowing that.”
Every year Thule experiences more than two months of complete darkness when the Earth’s rotation prevents sunlight from reaching the Arctic Circle. Kim said that living through that dark season has shown him that everyone has their own approach to maintaining resilience.
“I prefer to use humor to help maintain positive attitude and I also work out at the fitness center,” Kim said. “I run up to 12 miles a day to help relieve the stress and improve my resilience.”
Kim said he never expected that he would be working in the Arctic Circle with some of the best people in the country.
“I’m looking forward to doing more remarkable things in the future,” he said. “It has definitely been a very rewarding career so far, and I’m very grateful that [the] Air Force gave me a chance to be part of it.”