Ohio guardsman deployed to Baltics rekindles relationship with Latvian family
By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 15, 2018
TALLINN, Estonia — For U.S. airman Tech. Sgt. Bryan Burvis, deploying to the Baltics for the Atlantic Resolve operation is a homecoming and a reckoning with history.
Burvis’ family fled Soviet-occupied Latvia during World War II and suffered many hardships on their way through several war-torn countries. Now, almost 80 years later, Burvis is in the region of his forefathers, helping to reassure newly independent Baltic states that fear a resurgent Russia.
Burvis, with the Ohio Air National Guard, began his deployment to the region last month as part of the Theater Security Package in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the United States’ effort to deter aggression in Eastern Europe launched after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
“It’s so cool to be part of something bigger, and to be protecting this area in particular, that’s home to my culture and my ancestors,” Burvis said. “My family thinks it’s great that I’m here, and in their eyes, I’m protecting the region.”
Burvis, who works as a munitions specialist, is now helping create the training armaments the planes use when practicing dogfighting in the area.
When he is not “building things that go boom,” he takes time to visit his relatives in nearby Latvia.
“I didn’t expect to get deployed to Estonia,” Burvis said.
“When I found out I would be so close to Latvia, I told my dad I wanted to visit our Latvian family, and he teared up. It means so much to him that I’m doing this on my own.”
Burvis’ grandfather, Fricis, fled his hometown of Priekule with his grandmother, aunts and uncles in the 1940s, originally to avoid deportation to Siberia after the Soviet Union occupied Latvia.
They then traveled farther west as the front lines between Germany and Latvia moved closer to their home each day.
“Our family is extremely proud of our Latvian roots. And everything our family went though.” Burvis said. “We grew up hearing stories about where our family came from.”
His family’s exodus took them through a ravaged Poland, where his family briefly stayed in a concentration camp, as German soldiers evacuated hordes of refugees to safer areas and eventually to Nazi Germany.
Exactly how his family made it through safely, they don’t know, but Burvis attributes some of their luck to the fact that their appearance is similar to that of Germans.
One day the family was excited to see American tanks rolling through the village where they were staying. Fricis subsequently got work interpreting for the U.S. Army, helping the Americans whenever he could. Eventually, the Burvises made their way to the United States and found a Latvian community in Ohio, where the family lives to this day.
His grandfather never returned to the old country.
“It’s amazing to be here, for me. This is where my ancestors are from. And where my family almost didn’t make it out alive,” Burvis said. “It’s a miracle that my father was even born, and that I’m able to be here today.”
His command authorized him to visit his cousins in Riga, several hours south of Amari Air Base, where they are stationed.
“I talked to my command, and they let me go. Now we’ve really reconnected, and we talk almost every day,” Burvis said. “Family is really important to Latvian culture. Even though we live so far away from each other, we’re still close. They’re my cousins.”
He plans on making several more trips to Latvia while on his deployment, to continue rekindling his ties with his father’s side of the family.