Ukraine-born airman’s translations aided allied efforts as war erupted

by Tommy Grant

Senior Airman Kostiantyn “KK” Khymchenko barely spoke a word of English when he arrived in the U.S. from Ukraine in 2019.

A little less than three years later, Khymchenko’s translations during multiple deployments may have helped save countless lives and other resources since Russia launched a military invasion of neighboring Ukraine in early 2022.

It began with a Saturday-morning call in early February 2022. Khymchenko, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning journeyman with the 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, was driving home from a volunteer shift at his church. On the line was his master sergeant with a life-altering question: “Are you ready to go to Germany?”

“When?” Khymchenko asked.

“Tomorrow.”

Within 24 hours, Khymchenko, now 32, had deployed to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in support of Operation Atlas Guardian, tasked with translating and relaying information between the U.S. Air Force and the Ukrainian air force.

He led eight translators in 50 multinational teleconferences, assisted four generals, and was part of a task force advising his homeland’s air force on defensive campaigns, translating technical maps and other transmissions intercepted from Russia, according to the Air Force. His translations helped to provide intelligence on 400 sites targeted for missile attack and 1,500 missile launch alerts. His work ultimately protected 40 aircraft and more than 8 million lives — and earned him Military Times’ 2024 Airman of the Year award.

Details about his work remain classified. But for Khymchenko — a native of the city of Konotop in northern Ukraine, whose friends and family remain in the country as the war enters its third year — the stakes of serving both his homeland and his adopted nation were high.

“This was [a] big stress, because I [was] scared to be wrong. … But I think I was fine and everything was good,” he said. “I hope my translations helped to save somebody’s [life].”

Khymchenko arrived in Utah after his wife, Dariia, received a green card through a diversity lottery in 2019. To learn English, he uses translation apps, watches English-language movies and cartoons with his two children, and has taken college classes. He spent his first several months in America working as a mechanic at a Ford and Lincoln dealership in Utah, and enlisted in the Air Force in early 2020.

But he was no stranger to service.

A graduate of the Ukrainian Academy of Customs, Khymchenko worked as a border patrol agent in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, and in Russia’s Kursk region. That experience prepared him well for his first Air Force deployment, said retired Col. Rob Swertfager, a fighter pilot who previously directed the California National Guard’s State Partnership Program with Ukraine, and helped set up a tactical team at Ramstein as a liaison with the Ukrainian air force.

Khymchenko’s dedication was immediately apparent, and his professionalism and talent “far exceeded his rank,” Swertfager said. He’d arrive to work early and stay late, translating essential information while adding context to conversations and building trust with their Ukrainian counterparts.

“KK would be … the specific bridge for the American officer to get information to the Ukrainian air force,” Swertfager said.

Khymchenko wouldn’t stop at standard translations, Swertfager said. He’d also flag crucial nuances in language that American troops might otherwise miss.

Khymchenko received challenge coins for his impact on Atlas Guardian from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, and was named among the service’s 12 top outstanding airmen for 2023. He also earned the Ukraine Support Medal from Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s former defense minister.

On his second deployment, to Saudi Arabia in 2023, Khymchenko was again sent to Germany to serve as a translator during U.S.-led training of Ukrainian special forces.

Khymchenko said he wouldn’t have achieved as much without the help of his wingmen.

“You cannot win war without your teammates,” he said.

At home in Virginia, Khymchenko is known for his work ethic and professionalism, said Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Krueger, the 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron’s operations flight superintendent. He was named Wing Airman of the Quarter for the second quarter of 2022 for his work finishing 742 HVAC service calls and responding to 36 emergencies, according to the Air Force.

“I never expected in my 22 years of my career to be riding the coattails of a senior airman, but it’s been a hell of a ride,” Krueger said.

Now Khymchenko has set his sights on becoming a commissioned officer, musing that he could one day fly rescue or intelligence aircraft. His commitment has spread to his wife, Dariia, who now works as a contracting specialist at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

“America gives my family everything we need,” Khymchenko said. “For this reason … I want to serve and protect this country.”

For the past 23 years, Service Members of the Year awards have honored one outstanding military (active duty, Guard or Reserve) member from each branch of service. They are selected based on exemplary military service that goes beyond the call of duty. The honorees and their families are being flown to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the nation’s capital and a special awards ceremony attended by congressional, military and community leaders. The awards ceremony will take place on April 24, 2024. To watch the livestream of the event, register here.

See all of Military Times’ 2024 Service Members of the Year honorees.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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