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Airmen abassadors reflect on Kyrgyzstan tour

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For Senior Airman Tim "Mac" MacAllister, 123d Security Forces Squadron member, a recent deployment to Transit Center at Manus, Kyrgyz Republic offered an unexpected opportunity.

In the middle of the Kentucky Air National Guard member's tour, the call came down from his command that the military there was forming a basketball team. The team would play Kyrgyzstani teams and clubs in a series of goodwill games.

"I said I'd love to coach. That's when I found out we didn't even have any players," Airman MacAllister recalled. "I also found out that the first game was less than a month away."

In short order the Bluegrass native, who served as an assistant girls basketball coach at Logan County High School near Bowling Green, Ky. before his deployment, formed a team. As luck would have it, there were a few talented Airmen at the deployed location. He found a player who had walked on at Mississippi State. Another was a back up at Purdue University before his enlistment. Still another played Division II basketball at the collegiate level.

In weeks the quickly assembled team found themselves at Kyrgyztan's Palace of Sports in Bishkek. Their opponent was a consortium of the host nation's collegiate all-stars.

After an abysmal first quarter, the team came back to lead by two points at the half. By the fourth quarter, a stadium packed with 1,000 local nationals saw the military team manage a victory.

Any illusions of grandeur for the Americans were wiped clean weeks later in a subsequent game against a sports academy team.

"They were huge. We came in thinking it would be like the first game," recalled MacAllister.

The home team won big. However, in defeat the young coach recognized that his team was competing for more than points. They were connecting with the local population in ways that they wouldn't have otherwise. In the next game, they played a college team on base. It was the first time any of the opposing players had ever visited the installation.

"I think many of the Kyrgyzstanis thought we were big bad Americans," MacAllister said. "They got to see us on a more personal level. In two of the games, we presented them with gifts. It's harder to dislike someone when you have something in common, and basketball was something we definitely shared."

While the score in the third game favored the Americans, both sides were winning. The competition drew the attention of Kyrgystan's national press. Television networks and newspapers covered the games. The final game during Airman MacAllister's tour pitted the Airmen versus the academy team who'd soundly defeated them before. Playing a fast-paced game against the semi-pro academy athletes, Team Manus fought valiantly in a close loss.

"You know, it didn't feel so much like we were losing. It felt like we were competing. We were all having fun. We played hard and it was rewarding to have made so many friendships and to have shared such a unique experience while serving our country," he said.

Airman MacAllister returned home to graduate from the Nike Basketball Coaches Clinic and is a trial manager for the Murray State men's team. But the most unique honor on his resume is the recognition he received by the American Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and the host nation's minister of sports.

He wasn't the only Kentuckian to be recognized. Of the dozens of deployed Security Forces members who guarded precious American resources at the base, most participated in off duty activities to show their gratitude to the Kyrgyzstani people. Members took up a collection to pay for open heart surgeries for two local nationals. Others visited orphanages, helped improve local school facilities and went off base to interact with local community members and children.

"We all got something out of it," said Senior Master Sgt. Rhett Perdue, 123d SFS operations supervisor. "Even beyond the language barrier, we wanted to make a difference. When you look at what Airman MacAllister did and how much everyone contributed, you can't help to feel that we left a very positive impression."

"We knew we weren't in direct combat. But we understood what we were doing on and off duty was critical," said Staff Sgt. Jake Anderson, 123d SFS member. "We were helping people meet their basic needs and ensuring some of our nation's most important forwardly deployed assets were protected. To say it was rewarding would be an understatement."