Grasping freedom

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Rachel Allison
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"When you fled, you could only take what you could carry."

That is how 2nd Lt. Amela Kamencic, 28th Civil Engineer Squadron environmental project manager, recalls the moment when she - then only two years old - and her family fled their hometown of Prijedor, Bosnia, as Serbian forces invaded in April 1992.

Twenty-two years later, Kamencic remembers little of the events as they unfolded during their flight, but she knows the facts now.

At the time, her father and uncles stayed in Bosnia to fight while the rest of the family joined thousands of refugees in Croatia, where food was scarce, there were no schools and few available jobs.

Most importantly, her home was gone and her country devastated by 'ethnic cleansing' that killed almost a quarter of a million people, with hundreds of thousands leaving to escape the destruction.

"Luckily, we were able to flee to Croatia and stay there as we waited for my father and other relatives to return," Kamencic said. "However, not everyone was that lucky."

After reuniting with her father in Croatia, the family relocated to Germany where they sought to regain some semblance of a normal life. Germany had opened its borders to the displaced thousands, allowing her parents to find work and Amela and her sister to attend school as they settled into a familiar pattern.

As NATO and the U.S. joined the war and instituted Operation Deny Flight, Kamencic caught her first glimpse of the U.S. Air Force and was inspired with hope for the future.

"I remember watching the news with my parents and seeing the F-15s and A-10s on TV as they would fly over Bosnia," Kamencic said. "At the end of 1995, a peace treaty was signed by Bosnia and Serbia."

With Germany no longer able to sustain so many refugees and the war over, the Kamencic family faced a decision - go back to a town wiped out by genocide, or move to the land where the cease-fire had been signed.

They opted to go to America and their plane touched down in Austin, Texas, Nov. 25, 1996.

Her parents realized their dreams in the U.S. and the family found stability. Kamencic and her sister continued their education, eventually attending college - something she knows would not have been possible had they returned to Bosnia.

Growing up, she frequently recalled the Air Force planes she had watched on TV during the war.

"Once we relocated to the U.S I saw pictures of the Air Force everywhere and came to realize that the planes I saw on TV flying over Bosnia were part of that," Kamencic said. "When I was 9, I knew I would someday join the military."

Kamencic learned of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program as a junior in high school and realized it was the path for her. She joined the ROTC program at the University of Texas and graduated with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 2012, receiving her commission as an officer in the Air Force at the same time.

Despite the many hardships, Kamencic's history helped shape her life's path.

"I decided on the Air Force because I felt a sense of belonging every time I read about Operation Deny Flight," Kamencic said. She pursued civil engineering after visiting Bosnia for the first time in 2004 and seeing the schools and hospitals that had never been rebuilt.

Now, as a young officer starting her career at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., she truly is living her American dream, remembering forever the 6th and 25th of April - the day the war began and the day she left behind one homeland to begin the journey to another.

"These dates are a constant reminder of how much my family has endured," Kamencic said. "It is the strength of surviving that conflict that makes me proud to wear this uniform. To me, the American flag is a sign of hope and to this day - I smile every time I see it waving in the wind."