Wall Street Journal
May 2, 2007
Two U.S. Sergeants Found Ruins Dear to Soviet Fliers
By Michael M. Phillips
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- When Vyacheslav Fedchenko dreams about his friends, they are once again strong and brave and young, the pride of the Soviet Air Force.
When he wakes, though, he remembers how they met their end in Afghanistan 20 years ago, their planes engulfed in flames as they plummeted to the ground or slammed into mountainsides during the 10-year war between the Soviet Union and mujahedeen rebels armed by the U.S.
"I still miss them," says Mr. Fedchenko, now a 44-year-old pensioner in the Siberian city of Barnaul. "They were the best friends I've ever had."
Every year on the anniversaries of their deaths, he visits a Barnaul cemetery where one of his comrades is buried, to honor the lost members of his squadron. It's the best he can do; their real memorial is 1,500 miles away, crumbling and surrounded by land mines in a forgotten corner of Bagram Airfield, the giant American military base outside Kabul.
But today, thanks to two U.S. Air Force sergeants fighting another Afghan war, the Soviet pilots' memorial is on the verge of returning to Russian hands.
The Americans, Tech. Sgts. David Keeley and Raymond Ross, both 37, stumbled across the memorial by accident last summer. Airborne-combat engineers and amateur historians, they were exploring old Soviet bunkers at the end of Bagram's runway. They noticed a U-shaped concrete wall that swept skyward as it curled and, leaning against it, a concrete slab with 10 empty rectangular spaces.
The sergeants thought the wall's shape suggested aviation and the blank spots a place for pictures or plaques. That night, they found a trove of Web sites dedicated to Soviet planes and pilots. Sgt. Keeley, from Carrollton, Ill., had taught himself a little Russian in the 1980s; at the time he figured a clash with the Soviets was inevitable. Eventually, he and Sgt. Ross, from Lafayette, La., got in email contact with Mr. Fedchenko, who filled them in on the history of the Bagram memorial.
In 1980, with bodies already coming home from the year-old Afghan war, Mr. Fedchenko enrolled in the air-force aviation school in Barnaul, where he befriended First Lts. Konstantin Pavlyukov, Vladimir Paltusov and Victor Zemlyakov. Lt. Paltusov, boyishly handsome, was a late bloomer who had to fight to have the height requirements waived. Lt. Zemlyakov was a bit of a rebel, listening to underground Russian folk music, the Beatles and Deep Purple. The airmen were barred from drinking; they devoted themselves instead to studying, skiing and smoking.
After graduation in 1984, the men joined other pilots in a new squadron of Sukhoi Su-25 ground-attack planes, nicknamed Rooks after the crowlike birds. On Oct. 26, 1986, the squadron arrived in Afghanistan, where its job, to protect the infantry from the mujahedeen, was becoming increasingly dangerous with the spread of American shoulder-fired Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Over the course of a one-year combat tour, the squadron lost 13 of its 40 planes and five of its pilots.
First to die was First Lt. Igor Aleshin, whose jet was damaged by ground fire and plowed into a mountainside. Next was Lt. Pavlyukov. Mr. Fedchenko watched as a Stinger missile hit his classmate's plane. Lt. Pavlyukov bailed out and fought off the mujahedeen as long as he could. As his enemies closed in, he used his last hand grenade on himself.
Capt. Miroslav Burak's plane exploded shortly after takeoff. The others were never sure whether a Stinger had found him or an insurgent had sabotaged his plane. Lt. Paltusov corkscrewed to earth on July 20, 1987, his 24th birthday, apparently unconscious after mujahedeen rounds destroyed his oxygen system.
In August 1987, with the end of their tour in sight, the other airmen let themselves hope that Lt. Paltusov's death would be the last and decided to build a memorial to their fallen comrades. The squadron, whose members included engineers and architects, held a design competition. The winning design featured the curved wall, at the top of which was a hand-carved wooden model of an Su-25 Rook roaring into the sky. The slab initially held four oil-on-wood pictures of the pilots, painted by a paratrooper with a flair for portraiture. Below each was a plaque with the pilot's name, his rank and the dates of his birth and death. In front was a fence whose posts were the nose cones of bombs, linked by a chain of machine-gun ammunition belts.
The manual labor was supplied by maintenance crews, political commissars and pilots, including Mr. Fedchenko and Lt. Zemlyakov. When Lt. Zemlyakov was shot down in September 1987, while protecting a convoy of fuel trucks, the other airmen extended the slab to make space for his portrait.
On the curved wall they placed large letters that read: "Your name is internationalist, and your heroism is immortal."
It referred, Mr. Fedchenko recalls, to their sense of purpose. "The duty of the Soviet forces was an international duty to help the Afghan people," he says.
That mission, however, came to an ignominious end in February 1989, when the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan. Before they left, the airmen stripped the portraits from the memorial to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Mr. Fedchenko thinks they're now stored at an air base in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.
By the time Sgts. Keeley and Ross discovered the monument, someone had pried off the wooden airplane, a deep crack had formed in the slab, and the ammunition-belt fence had been scattered. Sgt. Keeley collected the links and stored them in an ammunition box.
With American commanders considering runway expansions at Bagram, the sergeants became consumed with the idea of protecting the memorial. They decorated their hooch in black-and-white photos, sent by Mr. Fedchenko, of Soviet pilots in their flight suits ready for combat, or in East Bloc bathing suits playing volleyball on a hot Afghan day. They learned that Lt. Pavlyukov, the pilot who blew himself up rather than be captured, had been posthumously named a Hero of the Soviet Union, the Soviet equivalent of the Medal of Honor in the U.S.
"They did what their country asked of them, and they paid the ultimate price," Sgt. Keeley says of the Soviet pilots. "It doesn't matter what country they were from. It was a part of history, and we didn't think it deserved to meet its end at a bulldozer's blade."
Word spread among former Soviet pilots that two Americans were trying to save their memorial. Several offered money, which the sergeants declined. Instead, the airmen -- who were to return to the U.S. last December -- turned to Army National Guard Sgt. Tom Clark, a high-school history teacher from Dyer, Ind. Sgt. Clark had been out of the military since 1979, but, at the age of 50, had persuaded the Army to take him back. He went straight to the officer in charge of base real estate to make his case.
The efforts generated publicity in Russia, where the story line was irresistible: American sergeants fighting in Afghanistan try to save a monument built to honor Soviet pilots killed in an earlier Afghan war, including a Hero of the Soviet Union shot down by an American missile.
Soon diplomats and generals got involved. In February, Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan toured the site with the top U.S. Air Force commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Christopher Miller. Gen. Miller told the Russians that he would protect the memorial from destruction, but that its ultimate fate was in the hands of the Afghan government, which owns Bagram.
A month ago, the Russians asked the Afghans for permission to move the slab section of the memorial to their Kabul embassy to be restored and displayed. The Russians are still awaiting a response from the Afghans.
Mr. Fedchenko survived a second combat tour in Afghanistan and retired a major 12 years ago. He now lives on income from construction jobs and a $250-a-month military pension. He says that his anger at the Afghan fighters and their American supporters has softened over time, even as his sense of loss lingers. "There were a lot of American planes shot down in Vietnam by Russian missiles," he says. "In Afghanistan, a lot of Russian planes and helicopters were shot down by American missiles. I don't take it personally. It's politics."
For Sgts. Keeley and Ross he feels only respect and gratitude. "It doesn't have anything to do with being American or Russian -- it's about being a soldier. Every true soldier has a lot of respect for other soldiers, even if it's an enemy soldier."