As American-Armenians honor all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation on this Veterans Day, Asbarez wanted to share the story of a member of its own family who is now serving our country in the Army. Asbarez’s broadcast affiliate Horizon Armenian Television viewers are familiar with Hayk Tovmasyan’s name and face. He anchored the news daily from August 2006 until April 2011. Asbarez’s Paul Chaderjian interviewed Hayk and his wife Mari (nee Gezalyan) about his decision to join the Army and what life for them is like in the military.
PAUL CHADERJIAN: Hayk, when did you decide to join the Army?
HAYK TOVMASYAN: A combination of factors made me join the Army, which I now proudly serve. First, California was going bankrupt and my tuition at CSU Northridge was becoming unaffordable. Second, my desperate attempts to earn a living wage and work full time at Horizon kept failing. In addition, I lost my contract with the Voice of America on Armenia TV when USArmenia went on the air in LA. Finally, I wanted to get married but needed financial stability. After two months of job hunting and 600 job applications and resumes, I came across a financial assistant position at U.S. Army, a job that I considered to be just a job and not a lifestyle change or serving my country.
P.C.: Hayk, what is your rank?
H.T.: Currently I am a Private First Class, which is E-3 grade. I am with 4th Brigade 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion 509th Airborne Infantry Regiment, Fox Forward Support Company.
P.C.: Mari, what were you doing when Hayk decided to join?
MARI TOVMASYAN: At the time Hayk decided to join, I was the Fashion Editor at Yerevan Magazine, but I worked out of New York City, where I was also completing my master’s degree in Fashion Studies at Parson’s.
P.C.: Hayk, tell me about the recruitment process and your concerns?
H.T.: The recruitment process was a little bit tricky. I went in looking for a part time financial assistant, but instead joined the Army as an active duty soldier. It all came down to joining the Army or serving in the National Guard, which is only one weekend every two months and would not help with my goals whatsoever. So I joined as an active duty soldier. My concerns were about my newly created family, deployment, pay and school. The biggest struggle was explaining to my friends and families the step I just took that was about to change not only my life but also their lives.
P.C.: What was boot camp like?
H.T.: The boot camp or Basic Combat Training as we call it was insane. It was the hardest thing I had ever done not only physically but also mentally. The summer of 2011 was the craziest summer in my life until last summer. My spirit was broken then rebuilt by effective drill sergeants. I lost 30 pounds, going from 214 to 184. It was a total body transformation. But I graduated at the top of my class with nicknames only some could imagine. Because of my last name, I was initially called the Armenian, then Top Missile, Ron Burgundy, tomato head, and after the combative course I was called the Armenian Devil.
P.C.: Ron Burgundy? So, your fellow soldiers knew about your other life as an anchorman? Did they see clips on YouTube?
H.T.: Ha ha ha. Yes, they did see the YouTube clips, Music Awards pictures and other news material. Initially, I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted to get to know them first before getting in my own history and my personal life. It was not easy to make friends with people who never saw an Armenian before. The first thing they would say is, “Do you know Kim Kardashian?” or “Are you related to Kim?” They surely were blown away with my previous profession.
P.C.: Mari, what was it like to watch Hayk go through training and be deployed?
M.T.: A lot of the training that Hayk went through was done behind closed doors. During the months that he was at basic training we only got to speak twice and each conversation lasted exactly five minutes. Our only way of communication was via traditional letter writing. It was difficult especially since Hayk was cut-off from the civilian world, and I was forced to make decisions for the both of us. Deployment was a whole other game though. I was able to speak to Hayk more often than when he was in training. Most of our conversations would get cut-off because of bad connection or blackouts. The most difficult part of seeing Hayk leave for Afghanistan was the worry in his eyes. You would think that his chief concern would have been himself out there. Instead his primary concern was wondering if I would be OK.
P.C.: Mari, what was your emotional journey like when Hayk was first deployed?
M.T.: Hayk got his deployment orders less than two weeks after we had our big Armenian wedding. At first, my emotions were all over the place. I was angry more than anything. I remember sitting in Army lodging, crying. But it only lasted a minute. I knew that crying wouldn’t change anything, I had to buck up and push ahead because that was the only thing I could do.
P.C.: Hayk, what was your first tour like? What was it like to be among a new family away from everything and everyone who was part of your other life as a broadcaster in Little Armenia?
H.T.: I went to Forward Operating Base Lightning in Paktiya Province of Southeastern Afghanistan. It was definitely something. I had to adapt to this new group of people and adjust myself to a war zone environment. I was in Armenia in the early 1990s and experienced another type of war, but I was young and did not have a weapon in my hand 24/7. A lot of people were shocked to think of me in Afghanistan, in uniform and with a weapon in my hand.
P.C.: Mari, did meeting other military wives help?
M.T.: It was difficult for me to relate to a lot of women here in Alaska. Most of them were from small towns and had kids. However, I was able to meet a couple of women as I settled into my new home. Over time, I was able to establish a great network of women that made Hayk’s deployment much easier. We became each other’s support group, therapist, you name it.
P.C.: Mari, what are your thoughts about young men and women deciding to put their lives on the line to serve their nation?
M.T.: Every time I think about what Hayk does or any other young soldier, I am overcome with emotion. I personally don’t think I would ever be able to do what they do. It’s not just physical but mental. They are young men and women who have one of the most selfless jobs one can ever think about pursuing. In a moment’s notice, they may be given orders to leave their families to complete a mission that no one would ever know about. I am forever grateful for their service, because they are the ones that able us to live the way we do in this country, never worrying about our rights or freedoms.
P.C.: Hayk, what do you have to say to others who want to serve and be an important part of world history as it unfolds?
H.T.: Regardless of your nationality or your origins, if you are an American citizen or call yourself an American, you need to serve your country in some way — whether it is in military or any other public service. The US affords you tons of privileges that you do not get anywhere else in the world. Serving is one way you can pay your nation back.
Serving in the military challenges your body, your mind and your soul. The Army pays you not only to proudly serve your country, but to also stay in great shape, eat three full meals a day, and have a decent roof over your head. It encourages you to finish your civilian education with tuition assistance. You get to travel the world for free and see places you would never imagine seeing. Of course, there are disadvantages too. You can and most probably will get deployed to a war zone and be away from your family for at least nine months. But these are sacrifices you have to make if you want to make the military your career or serve for a short term and then be honorably discharged.
P.C.: Thank You. Godspeed.