Turkish Native Returns to Homeland via Air Force Enlistment

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- A 39th Contracting Squadron airman knew what he wanted to do ever since he was a small boy growing up in a middle-class neighborhood near Balgat Air Base in Ankara, Turkey.

Staff Sgt. Erim Celik, a contract specialist, wanted to live the American dream. There was only one problem. He wasn't born under the "red, white and blue," nor were his parents U.S citizens.

His mother told him that he would stare with wonder at his neighbors across the street, who were Air Force members and their dependents stationed at the air base.

"They all seemed like they were having so much fun. They were sharp and clean, and so orderly," recalls Sergeant Celik, who still proudly maintains his Turkish citizenship.

Although he grew up in a fortunate family, Sergeant Celik says life in Turkey can be hard. "The educational opportunities aren't always there, and life can be a struggle."

He knew the first step to achieve his dream was education. A high school graduate from Ted Ankara College, Ankara, Turkey, Sergeant Celik completed his senior year of study as an exchange student in Missouri in 1992. Working his way through college, he graduated with a business management degree from Southwest Missouri State in Springfield, Mo., in 1998.

Crossing into the "Blue"

Ironically, for many American youths an enlistment in the military typically means giving up some of their freedom. For Erim, it meant gaining the freedom to control his destiny.

"I had a friend in the Navy who liked it," Sergeant Celik said. "He got his green card, and told me it was a good way to become an American citizen and travel the world.

"At first, I thought about going in the Navy, but my friend told me to go in the Air Force … that I would see more," he continued. He also considered the Army, which offered to pay off his college bills. In the end, he was sold on the Air Force's education, benefits, professionalism and technical skills.

Originally, he wanted to be a bioenvironmental engineer. Instead, in 1999, he became a contracting specialist, a career where knowing how to professionally communicate with customers and vendors is necessary to get the best price for merchandise and services.

An "ambassador" to two countries

His ability to communicate in English and Turkish paid off, when he arrived in Turkey May 3 after 12 years away.

"His ability to speak fluent Turkish and awareness of the culture is a definite asset to the squadron," said Senior Master Sgt. Mark Miller, 39th CONS superintendent. "He helps eliminate the language barrier."

Sergeant Celik said this assignment has been a great way for him to walk between and combine the two worlds he loves the most and, in a way, act as an unofficial ambassador to help people understand the other country's point of view.

"I can sit back and see both sides. In Turkey, it's not uncommon to see a family of four on a moped. Americans are amazed by this," he said.

Sometimes he feels even his wife, Sandra, and other Americans view Turkey as the Middle East they watch on the news. For instance, when he was a foreign exchange student in high school, students frequently asked him if he rode camels.

He would laugh and tell them that his dad was a used camel dealer, and the camels with two humps were more expensive than camels with one.

In reality, his father is a retired high school principal and his mother retired from sales. "Turkey is more modern and liberal than people think," he said.

Giving back

Returning to Turkey has also afforded Sergeant Celik the opportunity to help out those less fortunate. On his off time, he works beside other military members through organizations like Project Orphanage, which gives disadvantaged youths shoes, clothes or the immediate gratification of food.

A father himself to 7-month-old Alec Izmen, he also wants to impart some of the same desire to succeed in one's chosen profession to the local Turkish children that he found watching the orderly military members across the street at Balgat AB.

"I want to show kids you don't have to be afraid to take that chance. Even if I can talk one child into deciding they want to finish high school then college, it's worth it. I want to give them the encouragement they need."

After he retires, he would like to become a teacher.

His immediate goal is to earn a commission through the Airman Education and Commissioning Program as a foreign area officer specializing in Turkish.

"Even though I'm American, I'll always have my roots in Turkey."

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