By BRETT CIHON
Three decades after serving in West Germany during the height of the Cold War, Air Force veteran Donnie Francis is still making military friends.
He just never thought they’d come from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
“I could never have imagined I would be friends with someone from the other side of the line,” the former helicopter pilot said. “Never.”
Of course, Francis may never have imagined he would one day marry an attractive redhead from Siberia, and through her friends meet a retired Russian colonel, Yuri Skripnichenko.
But as he marks Veterans Day today, 20 years after his helicopter was shot down in the Gulf War, his life is richer for the Russian connections he’s made.
Francis, 55, was born in a little gray house off Sidney Road in Port Orchard. His mother was a former Miss Kitsap. His father was active in local civic organizations. Francis knew from a young age Port Orchard was a special place.
“I’ve always found comfort in my soul living in Port Orchard,” Francis said.
His family moved away from Port Orchard before he started high school. Soon after, in 1974, Francis joined the Air Force and served more than 18 years as a helicopter pilot and liaison officer. He rose to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant before a Cobra helicopter he was flying was shot down in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.
For all his military service, Francis said it was the time he spent in Frankfurt, Germany, during the Cold War that had the biggest effect on him. He flew patrol missions along the West-East German border from 1976 to 1981. Looking down at the Russian gunners and tanks lined up in East Germany, he knew a catastrophic war between East and West could break out at any time.
“I was trained to expect war,” Francis said. “We were told it was imminent.”
Of course, that war never broke out. Francis left Frankfurt. And when his helicopter was shot down in 1991, extensive back and neck injuries ended his active military career.
Remembering nothing of the crash, Francis woke up in a German military hospital. He spent time trying to recuperate in Germany and in Texas. In constant physical pain, he moved back to Port Orchard in 1997 to try and recapture the peace he knew as a boy.
But things were not the same. Depressed and out of sorts, even the comfort of Port Orchard didn’t go far in cheering him up. It wasn’t until his 24-year-old son, Troy, suggested Francis try to meet a romantic interest on the Internet that his life began to turn around.
“My son got tired of me being single,” Francis said. “So I decided to look online.”
He soon met a Russian woman from Siberia named Irina. After six months of what Francis called “a great connection,” Irina came to Port Orchard on a visitor’s visa. It wasn’t long before the two were married and she moved to Port Orchard with her three Russian-born children, who went on to graduate from South Kitsap High School.
“I used to think love was only for fairy tales,” Francis said. “But I found it with Irina.”
Donnie Francis stands by his millitary-look SUV that was a birthday gift from his wife, Irina. The missile on top holds his fishing rods.
It was a fairy tale love that came from a place unusually connected to Francis. Being with Irina reminded him of the time he spent in West Germany and the Russian soldiers he flew over on a weekly basis. He was reminded of the faces of men looking up at him in his helicopter.
Faces that could have easily belonged to his friend, Yuri.
“Yuri was waiting down there,” said Francis. “He definitely saw me flying overhead.”
Francis first met Yuri through Irina. Shortly after they were married, Irina began attending meetings and get-togethers held by other Kitsap-area Russian natives. At one particular dinner, Francis hit it off with a gray-haired, friendly man from Russia who was visiting his daughter.
Though Yuri and Francis spoke through Irina and Yuri’s daughter Alya as translators, the two men from different sides of the world immediately shared a connection.
“They understood each other without speaking the same language,” Irina said. “They are soul mates.”
While talking, Yuri told Francis he was a retired Russian army colonel. He also told Francis he was stationed as a gunner east of Frankfurt during the Cold War.
A realization came over Francis. Sitting across from him at the table was a man who had looked up at him while manning anti-aircraft artillery on the enemy side of the line. A man he could have fought in battle.
Francis told Yuri about the coincidence. In celebration of their meeting, the two men shared vodka and let the stories flow. Right off the bat, the similarities between the two old soldiers was striking.
“We were so similar that you wonder how the Cold War ever came to be,” Francis said.
According to him, Yuri said Russian military forces were told an attack from the West could come at any time.
“I told him, ‘that’s funny, I was waiting for you guys to attack us,’” Francis said.
The two veterans have been friends ever since their first meeting. They talk frequently online and Yuri has visited America three times, most recently earlier this month.
The two spent time at Francis’s new Gig Harbor home; he and Irina moved there from Port Orchard a year and a half ago. The two spent their time together flying a model helicopter Francis built and cooking steaks.
They still need an interpreter, but their bonds are apparently stronger than language. The duty and service to country all military men feel, Francis said, are pervasive.
“Soldiers respect each other — no matter what country they come from,” Francis said.
Francis usually spends Veterans Day hanging out with his family and visiting the graves of his grandfather and stepdad — both military veterans. He plans to call his son Troy, who is in the Navy.
And of course, Yuri will also be on his mind.
“Soldiers are soldiers because they love their country,” Francis said. “That was the same for Yuri as it was for me.”
Air Force veteran Donnie Francis is shown with his Russian-born stepdaughter, Lily, who was a cheerleader when she attended South Kitsap High School.