When Gabe Kohn was asked why he joined the service, he said, “I’ve always been a patriotic person and knew that serving my country would be something I’d want to do one day.” That patriotism has taken him on a journey that has been good for both him and our country.
Kohn is a staff sergeant with the 8th Fighter Wing of the U.S. Air Force. He has been stationed in South Korea since February and was recently home in Spring Valley on a three-week leave. His wife, Francise and their children, Michael and Annabella, were thrilled to have him home. “Being away from my family is the toughest part of service,” Kohn said. “I’m very grateful to have this time with them. We just celebrated our daughter’s one-year birthday and it was quite a party!”
Back when Kohn was a junior in high school, he started thinking about his plans after graduation. The thought of the military was always there and he decided to talk with several recruiters. He eventually landed at the Air Force recruitment office in Rochester. After doing some research and talking with a family member who was in the military, he made the decision that the Air Force was where he wanted to be.
Because Kohn was under 18 years of age, his parents had to sign off on his enlistment papers. “They were supportive, but also nervous…so was I! We were confident though that this would be a good thing for me, especially with the training and the opportunities to learn new skills. Also, the Air Force typically is not the branch that sends “boots on the ground” and that made my family feel better.”
In 2010, Kohn began his service with eight weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Then on to Keelser, Mississippi for six months of technical training. “This was somewhat like college,” Kohn said. “We lived in dorms, studied nine hours a day, but also had uniform inspections and drills. This is where I was taught my career field of cyber systems operations. In other words, I learned to become an IT guy!”
The next six years were in Grand Forks. His wife joined him and their son was born three years ago. During this time, Kohn worked on the Communications Maintenance Unit for the Global Hawk, a UAV (Unmanned Arial Vehicle) or RPA (Remote Piloted Aircraft). “When this plane flew onto our base, it was quite a sight. My job was working on the equipment in the cockpit to ensure the plane was communicating to make it fly.”
While stationed in Grand Forks, he was asked to be part of the honor guard. This 10-person select group serves a six-month term and is called upon to perform military funerals, color detail at events and retirement ceremonies. “Our honor guard was the second most active in the country,” Kohn said. “We covered the eastern part of North Dakota and all of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We were the color guard at WE Fest in Detroit Lakes, the largest country music festival in the United States. My honor guard service has been one of my best memories thus far. I’m very proud and humbled to have served.”
This past February, Kohn was deployed to South Korea near the city of Gunsan. He lives on base with about 2,000 other military men and women. He lives in a dorm and shares a kitchen and a bathroom with one other person. He has his own room separate from the common area and a type of WiFi that allows him to video chat with his family.
When asked about tensions with North Korea, Kohn said, “Things are a bit heightened. We have briefings and participate in simulated attack exercises. But honestly, it’s just a part of our lives. In fact, the South Koreans that we are in contact with say that it’s always been like this. They have grown accustom to living with North Korea’s actions and threats.”
There are many civilians that work on base. “We interact with them quite a bit,” Kohn said. “Especially if we go into Gunsan, a city about 15 minutes away with a population of 287,000 people. The Koreans are typically very friendly and curious about America. They ask us where we are from and things about life here. It’s interesting to learn about their culture as well. I’ve had traditional food like kimchi and bulgogi.”
Kohn returned to Korea in early November. He knows how much he’ll miss his family, but they will video talk nearly every day. “It’s not the same, but at least I get to see them. The 14-hour time difference makes it a little challenging.”
Kohn said his fellow service men and women are his family too. “There’s a camaraderie that’s difficult to describe. We’re all in this together and it’s a very strong bond.” Kohn plans to retire from the military after 20 years of service. His next deployment will be to Germany.
Kohn’s advice for those considering the military: “Have an idea of what you want to do for a career and talk to others who have served. Ask yourself, why you want to do it and if your heart is in the right place, it will be a good thing for you and our country.”