WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- For decades, America has been known around the world as a place of opportunity, a reputation that has drawn people from all corners of the world to inhabit there.
It's this reputation that motivated a husband and wife to leave a former communist nation of Yugoslavia with their two boys in tow in 1961 at the height of the Cold War.
This is the backdrop of one Airman's story; an Airman who today serves as one of the service's top leaders.
Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc was born in the former communist country of Yugoslavia. There, his father worked as a tailor and mother served as a midwife. Though his parents worked hard, he said, there was something even hard work couldn't buy there: opportunity.
Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc, Air Force assistant vice chief of staff and director of the Air Staff, conducts a staff meeting with Maj. William Mamourieh and Lt. Col. Brian Stuart in the Pentagon, Washington DC, Dec. 18, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)
In America, your ability to succeed is directly proportionate to what you put into it, Gorenc said in a recent interview.
"The message to me was if you work hard in America, you can succeed," he said. "That was something that was not present in Yugoslavia. That's why they left -- opportunity for them, opportunity for their children."
Opportunity is not only what motivated young Gorenc to join the Air Force, but what he's helping Airmen realize 34 years into his military career.
"The motivation and attitude of the Airmen, for me, is a primary," Gorenc said. "I'll take an Airman with a lower score or less experience, if they're motivated or have a great attitude. You can't test for those things. It comes from the heart."
When Gorenc talks about this upbringing, it's clear that in these young Airmen, he sees himself.
'Two Ships Passing in the Night'
When Gorenc was 4, his family emmigrated to the United States, settling in Milwaukee, Wis. There, they joined other family members from Yugoslavia.
"We chose Milwaukee because my dad had brothers who had settled there," the general said. "And at the time, Milwaukee was a very blue collar kind of town [with] many blue collar job opportunities available."
His family arrived in America with motivation and only about $100 to their name.
His father found familiar work as a tailor and his mother worked in a factory while taking English and constitution classes to become American citizens. This was their routine for five years.
"I saw firsthand, though I didn't recognize it then, what a sacrifice they made in their lifestyle in order to provide the opportunity that came along with living in America," the general recalled.
Fulfilling their dream became part of his own, he explained.
"My father worked on the day shift, and my mother had a night shift job because there were not childcare options available like there are these days. Plus we didn't have money for childcare" Gorenc said. "For years, they were two ships passing in the night ... it motivated me because I didn't want to disappoint them."
Gorenc was a motivated child from the start. While most children were learning basic math, Gorenc had to learn those things plus English. It was sink or swim.
Raised in an ethnic community, Gorenc said the goal was to "learn English as fast as we could, and to understand everything that America had to offer." "We recognized the fact that knowing English well, knowing America well, was a way to move forward," he added.
As Gorenc grew, so did his love of school, he said. He didn't just love the academics, but what the entire environment offered him.
For most of his childhood, his parents, he said, were "... otherwise occupied trying to sustain the family." "My entire life revolved around going to school; it was a safe place for me."
An Airman in the Making
His extra-curricular activities included his school's math club, football team, weight lifting club, band and more. Unknowingly at the time, he was preparing himself for a life of service in the Air Force.
The phrase "whole-person concept" is well-known across the Air Force and Gorenc has been living this lifestyle since an early age. The concept focuses on Airmen becoming well-rounded through unit and community involvement, active pursuit of off-duty education and excellence in their career fields.
"I feel like I've been an Airman since day one," Gorenc said. "The way I grew up and the motivation of my parents was represented well in the Air Force that I came into."
The general noted that the Air Force seeks more than singular talents.
"We value the whole person, as they come into our Air Force and as they move up in our Air Force."
Growing up, there was only one institution Gorenc wanted to attend after high school -- the Air Force Academy. Gorenc's older brother, Stanley, was attending the academy then. The elder brother retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a major general.
"When I was a freshman in high school, I went to parent's weekend to visit [him]," he said. "I walked on the campus with my parents -- from that moment on, it was Air Force Academy all the way. It was very high-tech looking, so it attracted me visually. I knew it was an organization that had the future in mind."
Throughout high school, Gorenc's grades, though above average, did not stand out. But what was distinctive could not be quantified.
When asked what he attributes receiving his nomination to and eventual acceptance into the Academy, he said it's an "x-factor," ... the "thing" numbers can't define. The thing he looks for in Airmen today.
Gorenc said his scholastic aptitude test scores were just 10 points above the minimum for acceptance into the academy. "I had to take the SATs three times just to get that score." At the Air Force Academy, academics were important, but so was athletic and military training ," the general said.
"Being well rounded was more important than pure academic achievement [and] our Air Force is like this," Gorenc said, crediting his academic, athletic and community involvement for helping open Academy doors to him.
In order to apply for military academies, applicants must be nominated by one of their congressmen. Gorenc began with his senators, both of whom denied him.
"I kept the (rejection) letters," he said. "I have them at home. The senators said, 'Thanks for applying, your SAT scores are too low.'"
But that didn't stop him. Gorenc then applied through a man he already knew who'd already significantly impacted his life and still does, Congressman Clement J. Zablocki.
Zablocki, who represented the people of Milwaukee for more than 30 years, sponsored the Gorencs' immigration to the states, and even nominated brother Stanley for the Academy.
The congressman, Gorenc explained, took a more involved approach than the senators for vetting potential academy nominees. Zablocki commissioned a three-person panel of community members, including a local businessman, a housewife and a priest, to interview candidates on their future goals and desires. Additionally, the congressman based his academy nominations on the Wisconsin civil service exam, not the SAT scores.
Clearly, they saw something special.
Today, Gorenc is one of about 200 Air Force generals on active-duty. He serves as the assistant vice chief of staff and Air Staff director in the Pentagon.
As one of the service's senior leaders, he uses a Zablocki-inspired approach to identify exceptional Airmen, some of whom will go on to earn stars on their shoulders and lead the future Air Force, a fact not lost on the general.
"The legacy that I want to see for me is in the end people will say 'yeah, he knew his mission, he did his mission well, and he helped train a whole group of Airmen for the future.' That's the only thing I give a (darn) about," Gorenc said.
From seeking opportunity to overcoming adversity, Gorenc offers many lessons, though none are arguably more important than one he learned as a young Slovenian immigrant with high hopes.
"In America, if you work hard, you succeed -- that's what I believe," he said. "And I believe that is true in the United States Air Force."
By USAF Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
(Joel Fortner contributed to this article)
Air Force News Service
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