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STORY OF THE WEEK: When enemies become friends

Jennifer King, ASC Europe

Lt. Col. James Kennedy, commander of the 1st Battalion, 405th Army Field Support Brigade in Kaiserslautern, Germany, visits Martina

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- 1988:

A patriotic young man joins the U.S. Army, pledging to protect America from enemies both foreign and domestic. Half a world away, another patriotic young man joins another army - the Czechoslovak Army, taking his oath behind the Iron Curtain, promising to advance the cause of communism and defeat its detractors - namely, the United States of America. Both loyal to their countries, supportive of their causes - enemies by birth and politics.

2007: That American Soldier, now Lt. Col. James Kennedy, and his family host a young girl from the eastern European country of Slovakia through the foreign exchange student program Council on International Educational Exchange.

2008: Kennedy and his family visit Slovakia, warmly hosted by their student's family with open arms. Her father? Martin Maliňák, that same Czechoslovakian soldier who joined his military the same year that Kennedy joined the U.S. Army.

Enemies no more, these two soldiers are now joined by the most important bond: Martina "Tina" Maliňáková, the exchange student that the Kennedy's hosted while they were stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. Both Kennedy and Maliňák call her "daughter."

Kennedy, who is the commander of the 1st Battalion, 405th Army Field Support Brigade in Kaiserslautern, says that he wasn't nervous at all about meeting his old Cold War enemy for the first time.

"Martin and I were communicating through Tina for 10 months, so her family knew us. Tina didn't understand what Martin does in the Army, so I was very interested to talk to him about his job and how they operate and to teach him about the U.S. Army," Kennedy explained.

"I found out he is in a logistics battalion supporting a mechanized brigade. Logistics! That's my field, too! We talked a great deal and learned a lot from each other."

Although Kennedy wasn't nervous about meeting Martin, he admits to some apprehension about his trip to Slovakia.

"The Maliňák family grew up under the shadow of communism," Kennedy said. "Until we visited Tina's family, especially her grandparents, they had never met any Americans. Their knowledge of America was from television shows and CNN world news. I was honestly more nervous about meeting Tina's grandparents than her parents. They lived under communism much longer and had less opportunities than Tina's parents.

"They never dreamed 25 years ago that one day their granddaughter would visit the United States, much less live with an American Army family and visit the White House, U.S. Capital, Supreme Court and the Pentagon. We worked hard to make sure that we made a good first impression and represented our country well to them.

"We knew it was going well when Tina's great-grandmother came out and threw a football for the first time and when my daughter Jamie helped in the kitchen, learning to make halushky, a traditional Slovak dish."

Initially, when Tina first entered the foreign student exchange program, the Maliňáks were concerned that their daughter was going to live in the U.S. for an extended period of time with a family they had never met.

"Martin and Tina's mother Iveta were naturally worried," Kennedy said, "but happy she would be in a military family where you expect discipline and mentoring. We believe they were both very happy with the way we respected and cared for Tina for the year."

Kennedy, who with his family has also hosted students from Norway, South Korea and Germany, believes the relationships forged through the exchange student program benefit his family and the student, but more importantly, benefit his daughter.

"My wife Kim and I are so proud of Jamie, especially seeing her during this recent visit to Slovakia," Kennedy said. "In her short life, she has met many different people, but that is what she knows.

"She does not see differences - only another grandma cooking excellent food or another kid to play with," Kennedy continued. "She is getting quite the education in life as well as learning how to be an ambassador for her country."

Tina Maliňáková believes the exchange program is a win-win situation.

"My favorites thing about living in the U.S. was the culture of the U.S. and the food differences," Maliňáková wrote via e-mail from her hometown of Presov, Slovakia, the regional capital of eastern Slovakia. "The culture of the U.S. is composed by many different cultures, and I think it is pretty interesting that you can find so many different people, food and customs in one area.

"When I was there, I visited a lot of different restaurants, and I enjoyed them all. Slovakia is awesome, but you cannot find here Korean, El Salvadorian or Ethiopian places." Maliňáková particularly enjoyed showing the Kennedy family around her country during their visit to her country.

"I enjoyed showing (them) the old castles, Slovak nature, and the simple way of life of the Slovak people," she said. "In Slovakia, we have many, many old castles, some of them more than 900 years old. It is pretty funny, when you realize that when Columbus discovered America, some of our castles were almost in ruins."

In retrospect, it seems a shame that these families were separated for so many years simply because of the world situation at that time. Maliňáková believes that programs like the foreign exchange student program could benefit people around the world.

"An exchange student has a chance to see some things differently and create his or her own opinion to the specific country," she explained. "I think if there were even more exchange students, in 20 or 30 years, the world would be a lot different with more respect.

"The young generation can change things and the situation in the world because we have more opportunities."

Kennedy vouches for her faith in the younger generation.

"It is ironic that Martin and I both joined our armies in the 1980s as enemies, and today we share a daughter with unlimited potential and opportunities," Kennedy said. "We are very proud of our favorite Slovak daughter and eager to see what she does in life."

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