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U.S.: Russian-American Community Honors New York City Area Servicemen

Eighteen Russian-American soldiers who fought in the Iraq war participated this week in a ceremony in New York City that recognized their bravery in the campaign.

Brooklyn, New York; 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The 18 American soldiers participating in this week's ceremony in Brooklyn looked proud. Their uniforms were crisp, their posture was straight, and they expressed themselves thoughtfully and politely.

So it came as a bit of a shock to hear these young but seasoned soldiers speaking in fluent Russian.

Corporal Mike Chernyak, an intense fellow with a square jaw and a rank in the martial arts, said his Marine unit was among the first to enter Iraq in March 2003.

"I didn't feel fear [when they deployed in Iraq] because I decided for myself that if a grenade falls into our trench, I will be the first to jump on it," Chernyak said. "When I made this decision, I was able to do my job calmly and with focus."

But the parents and relatives of the soldiers attending the ceremony had, for the most part, initially disapproved of their sons' decisions to enlist.

Kira Chernyak, the mother of Corporal Chernyak, said she and her husband weren't thrilled when her son decided to go into the military.

"When he was a little kid, all the little boys [in the Soviet Union] wanted to be in the military," Kira Chernyak said. "But when he grew up, his desire to go into the military really troubled us. He grew up in America. We arrived here when he was 6 years old. Of course, we tried to dissuade him. You know, we got him out of Russia so he wouldn't go into compulsory military service. And then, in this country, when the military service is not compulsory and one can arrange one's own life -- moreover in such turbulent times -- it wasn't [the American dream] we dreamed of for him."

She said, however, that once her son made his mind up, the only thing she and her husband could do was to support him and to pray.

Curtis Sliwa hosted the Brooklyn event. Sliwa, who is also the president of the Guardian Angels, a community watch group, noted in his speech the strength of the ethnically diverse U.S. military.

"Look at the combined strength of the Russian-American heritage and all those satellite nations that have gone back and forth in terms of their own lineage, and you add it to the combines forces of the South American, the Central American, the West Indian, the Caribbean, the Asian, the black, the white, the Hispanic, the male, the female -- what a strong force to battle for freedom and democracy established by our forefathers so long ago," Sliwa said.

U.S. Marine Sergeant Alex Presman was 15 years old when his family emigrated from Minsk to New York in 1992. Presman joined the reserves in 1999 as a part of the 6th Communication Battalion. In 2003, Presman volunteered to go to Iraq, where he was wounded in a land-mine explosion. In August 2003, Presman was visited by U.S. President George W. Bush, who personally awarded him the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in battle.

Lance Corporal Vitaly Kryzhanovskiy, originally from Tashkent, has been in the U.S. military for 2 1/2 years. He says that 80 percent of the soldiers in his Marine battalion are already in Iraq. His own deployment to Iraq is a distinct possibility.

"I feel I want to be with my pals," Kryzhanovskiy said. "My best friend has left. I came here with his wife. He is still in California but will be soon transferred to Iraq. Lance Corporal Ilia Kaufman -- he is from Rostov-na-Donu. He is my best friend."

Russian-American Andrey Baranovsky, an intelligence analyst with U.S. Special Forces, has served in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I went into the Airborne and from there was assigned to the Special Forces," Baranovsky said. "They needed a Russian speaker. There wasn't a clear decision to go into the Army. I just decided to go and check for myself. I was curious to know what the military is about. Russians view the military so negatively. In America, the attitude is totally different."

Two Russian women -- veterans of World War II -- also participated in the ceremony. The young servicemen in attendance jumped to their feet and applauded when it was announced that one of the women, Genya Peretyatko, had been a sniper and had killed 148 Nazi fighters.

Peretyatko, who was 16 years old in 1941, described a personal encounter with a German SS soldier, her closest brush with death.

"I see this is the end. He is a big fellow, and I am so short. I thought, 'This is it,' and lifted the rifle to hit him with the butt," Peretyatko said. "He was aiming at my head, but the bullet grazed my arm right here [on her wrist]. Nevertheless, [later] I played for 22 years as a violinist in an orchestra."

Thirty-two-year-old Staff Sergeant Alex Merzlyak came with his family to the United States in 1979. He speaks Russian but said communicating in English is easier for him. Merzlyak spent six months in Iraq last year. An engineer by training, he was responsible for providing power for a communications site:

"My feeling [was] kind of exciting, not fear. It was more of an anxious feeling -- not to get into combat but anxious to test my training," Merzlyak said. When asked to describe his training, Merzlyak answered that it was "intense." "Physically, it's not that intense unless you are out of shape. But it's all psychological. They break your mind down."

Raisa Chernina, the president of the Be Proud Foundation, the organizer of the event, announced that -- with the support of several community groups -- they had successfully lobbied the City Council of New York to rename a street in Brighton Beach -- a Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn -- in honor of those who have served in Iraq.

The street will be called Heroes of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for November.