When he was just a toddler, Senior Airman Daniel Shimanski's parents escaped the turmoil of the crumbling Soviet Union and brought him the United States.
Little did they know that a few years later their son would be in the middle of another kind of turmoil – as a U.S. Air Force emergency medical technician in Afghanistan.
The result is that Shimanski, 24, of the 436th Medical Group at Dover Air Force Base on April 5 became one of the few medics to receive the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
"It's really rare," Shimanski acknowledged. "It's very, very unusual for an Air Force medic to go outside the wire, it's usually the Army medics. But to have an Air Force medic going out with the Army, that's even more unusual."
But unusual might be a good word to describe Shimanski's life up to this point. Born in the breakaway Soviet republic of Belarus, he came to America when he was 18 months old. Although he gained American citizenship when his parents were naturalized, he grew up in an environment heavy with the influence of his homeland. He went to a Russian church, learned Russian traditions and was expected to speak only the Russian language at home.
"We were a very tight-knit community," he said. "We were always helping each other in learning about America."
Shimanski balanced what he called his culture's aversion to war and his desire to serve his adopted country by becoming a medical technician. His parents were both proud and supportive of his decision to enlist, he added.
Shimanski enlisted in 2007 and came to Dover in December 2010. He'd been on base only a month when he was first sent to Afghanistan. He was there six months and returned to Dover, only to get new deployment orders 10 months later.
As with his first tour, Shimanski would be serving as a medic with a group of U.S. Army reservists. Because of personnel shortages, it was not uncommon in Afghanistan for Air Force airmen to be serving directly alongside Army soldiers.
Although airmen have an undeserved reputation among the other services as being less tough than soldiers or Marines, Shimanski and other trainees gained the soldiers' respect by doing everything they did, including sleeping on the ground and foregoing regular showers.
"It was a great experience," he said, quickly adding, "not that I'd want to do it again."
Shimanski was four months into a six-month deployment when he earned the Combat Action Medal.
Shimanski said his training had taught him to anticipate what occurred that day in September.
"It's scary over there. You know something will happen, you just don't want it to happen to you."
Page 2 of 3 - He was part of a convoy moving heavy equipment between two remote bases when the second truck in the convoy was blown into the air by what the military calls an improvised explosive device, or IED.
Things happened quickly after that. Shimanski's vehicle and a wrecker had moved up to the stricken vehicle when a second IED went off under the wrecker.
Two soldiers disappeared into the smoke and dust just as Taliban insurgents started firing into Shimanski's group from about 300 yards away. Shimanski spotted the two missing soldiers, who were out in the open, exposed to enemy fire.
To help protect them, Shimanski and his vehicle gunner, along with others in the convoy, returned fire for approximately 15 minutes until an Air Force F-16 fighter showed up. The plane flew so low and fast over the scene its sudden appearance apparently scared off the insurgents.
Technically serving as non-combatants, medics are permitted to use weapons to protect their patients, Shimanski said. Although he was trained to defend himself, his first instinct was to get to the downed soldiers.
"I just wanted to run out there and help them," he said.
Things got eerily quiet after the F-16's appearance as Shimanski and the soldiers hunkered down, anticipating another attack that fortunately never came.
Shimanski was able to treat the two soldiers, neither of who was seriously wounded. Because of the damage, the convoy could not move on and so the soldiers anxiously waited inside their vehicles, where the heat could often exceed 110 degrees, for a relief column to arrive. Tension went up briefly when a third IED blew up about 60 feet away, but no attack followed. Eight hours went by before help arrived.
Back in his bunk that night and in the months since, Shimanski has had a lot of time to reflect on that day. He feels comfortable with what happened and how he reacted, adding that he's had access to counseling and services that have helped him avoid many of the stresses associated with combat.
Shimanski returned to Dover in December 2012, and now is part of the base clinic's ambulance response team. He's working on a promotion to staff sergeant and mentoring other, less experienced medical specialists. Despite their sometimes routine work, he wants them to be ready in case they receive the call to serve in a war zone.
"I tell them they'll never know what's in store for them," he said. "I say, you're a combat medic and you have to be ready and you have to have that mind-set."
As for his own future, Shimanski plans to make the Air Force a career and become either an aeromedical evacuation specialist or an independent medical technician.
Page 3 of 3 - But he'd also consider a different career path, one as an explosives disposal expert, trained to neutralize the IEDs.
"I'd like to be able to disarm the bombs before they hurt someone," he said.