Separated by life, reunited by the Blue
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Shaking with excitement, Andrzej Pankowski struggled to stay awake into the early hours of the night, just to contact his older brother Jarek, located half-way across the world in northern Japan.
His phone call was met with both disbelief and reciprocated excitement.
Separated for nearly 10 years with little contact between them, the two brothers would soon be reunited.
"I didn't believe him," said Senior Airman Jarek Pankowski, 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron cargo specialist. "I thought it was a prank and said I wouldn't believe it until I saw a copy of his orders."
Months later, awaiting him at the airport, Jarek came face to face with his brother Andrzej, also a senior airman and 35 LRS traffic management journeyman, for the first time in several years.
Growing up in northern Virginia, the brothers were inseparable. They attended the same school, spent time with the same friends and often played group sports and enjoyed the same activities.
The year older and soft-spoken Jarek found a safe haven in playing video games, while the more outgoing Andrzej found outdoor activities more appealing.
"Throughout school, I leaned more toward track and field, and playing video games," said Jarek. "Andrzej is the one who went out for things like football, baseball and other mainstream sports."
Their father, a first generation immigrant from Poland and former Air Force civil engineer Airman, brought the boys together, teaching them to ski and snowboard, while encouraging the two to stay active and cherish their brotherly bond.
When the time came for them to start middle school however, the boys created what would become an almost 10-year absence from one another.
"I attended a different school from Andrzej - one focused more on science and math as opposed to his public school," Jarek said. "We made new friends and established new identities for ourselves."
Their absentee trend pervaded throughout home life, work and even the rest of their school years.
Despite later being in the same high school, the brothers and their friends never once met. Rumors that another Pankowski was in the school were the only thing anyone knew about the boys' relation to one another.
"Our schedules were so different back then," said Andrzej, with a tinge of remorse. "We lived in the same house and went to work, but never saw each other during that time. When one of our school activities or work shifts ended, the other's began."
This, coupled with Jarek's increasingly anti-social behavior, continued to drive the rift between the two further.
Upon completing high school and unsure of his future, Jarek found himself without any direction in life.
"Toward the end of school, I became a bit rebellious," admitted Jarek. "I separated myself from my family and didn't have any options going forward."
With a figurative and literal tug on his ear from his mother, he soon found himself negotiating an enlistment contract with an Air Force recruiter.
Leaving for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in 2010, the older Pankowski began his own adventure, exacerbating the strained relationship.
"I ended up at Nellis Air Force Base after technical school and knew nothing about anything," said Jarek. "I was there for almost five months before being deployed to Ballad Air Base, Iraq."
Fresh out of high school and deployed into enemy territory, Jarek understood the danger of the situation he was in.
"Mortars would explode at random times during the night," said Jarek. "I had no idea what was going on. I was scared - I missed my family."
It was a life-changing experience for Jarek.
"During my time in the desert, I came to the realization that maintaining a relationship with my family was important - more so than I gave it credit for." Jarek reflected.
Still sandy, Jarek returned to Nellis AFB, where he was greeted by his family. He was a changed man with a new outlook on life - no longer the rebellious youth from his earlier days.
"The Air Force gave me an amazing chance to grow up and broaden my horizons. It really put things in perspective," said Jarek.
He wasn't the only one with life-changing news though - younger brother Andrzej had experienced the same familiar ear tug Jarek once received and announced he would also be joining the Air Force.
"Subconsciously, I wanted to join because he did. I wanted to follow in his footsteps," said Andrzej. "When I saw Jarek again at Nellis, he was different. He was a different person. I got to reconnect with my brother again."
Shortly after his deployment, Jarek received orders to Misawa, located within the Aomori prefecture in northern Japan.
Now separated by over 6,000 miles, Jarek was clueless as to how the snowiest base in the world would play into his future, and how Andrzej listed the base as his only choice on his dream sheet.
"It was the only base I wanted," said Andrzej, smiling. "I got put at Moody Air Force Base instead, which was nice, but it definitely wasn't Japan."
Making the best of his assignment at Moody and learning the ins-and-outs of LRS warehouses, Andrzej soon found himself changing into a different person, much like his brother earlier.
A year into his assignment, Andrzej opened his email to a welcome surprise - an email from the Air Force Personnel Center granting him orders to Misawa.
"I was so excited to get that notification," Andrzej said wide-eyed. "I was jittery during the day and staying up the whole night just so I could let Jarek know."
"We both thought someone in AFPC was playing a trick on us," laughed Jarek. "If they knew who we were, they probably wouldn't have sent him over here."
The two exchanged devilish grins.
After nearly a decade of separation, the two reunited at the 35th Fighter Wing.
Since settling in at Misawa, the brothers have caught up on all of the years they missed while being apart, supporting each other during work and even picking skiing and snowboarding back up.
"We are wingmen, but also brothers," said Jarek. "We are able to help one another on and off duty and that makes life a lot easier."
"If something is wrong, we know we can turn to each other," said Andrzej.
Playfully slapping each other and laughing, the two very different brothers agreed on one thing:
"We're both so grateful for the Air Force bringing us together again," Jarek said. "It's a situation you rarely hear about and to have my brother with me means everything."
Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airmen Andrzej Pankowski, 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron traffic management journeyman, and Jarek Pankowski, 35 LRS cargo specialist, pose for a picture at Misawa Air Base, Japan, July 31, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick S. Ciccarone
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