Serve in the Navy long enough and a holiday season will arrive when you can’t take leave to go home.
It’s a weird, disconnected, sometimes sad feeling for many sailors, and one that can be doubly difficult for younger shipmates away from home for the first time.
Some junior sailors also can’t afford the ticket home.
Chief Navy Counselor Grant Khanbalinov told Navy Times he had the plight of his younger shipmates in mind on Nov. 24, when he launched “Operation Send Sailors Home.”
The 29-year-old still remembered being in school at Great Lakes during the holidays.
“I knew how it was to cross the street from the barracks, go to the McDonald’s, get a couple things off the dollar menu, go to the mall a few times, pay my cell phone bill and now I don’t have money for a plane ticket home,” he said.
So after discussing it with his wife, Khanbalinov set out to find a junior sailor who needed the chief to buy a plane ticket home.
Known online as “Chief Khan,” Khanbalinov took to social media to spread the word that he was looking for junior sailors who needed some help.
Khanbalinov made sure to record his video asking for nominations while dressed in civilian clothes.
He’s been on convalescent leave, so his video call to action features a bit of stubble as well.
“I could’ve put my uniform on, but I really wanted this for junior sailors,” he said. “I didn’t want an E-1 or E-2 or E-3 to be intimidated from messaging me if I had my uniform on.”
Chief Khan reached out to Navy personnel and sites with large followings of sailors to help spread the word, and nominees started pouring in.
Then, five other shipmates and veterans contacted Khanbalinov. They wanted to help.
He collected their telephone numbers, started a text thread and they all Venmo’d him a donation.
“At first I was a little hesitant, but then I was like, let’s do it,” Khanbalinov said. “I never asked for a specific amount, I never told them how much someone else was donating…but we had five people reach out, every rank. Junior sailors, senior sailors, officers, pilots, nukes, all of them contributed what they could.”
All told, Khanbalinov was able to fly three sailors home, and provide a bit of cash to two other lucky shipmates.
The nominees had to have leave chits already approved and were available to fly, he said. Khanbalinov then assigned a number to each name and had Google select random digits.
“I wanted to show even the most junior sailors that we may never see each other, you may never meet me, but at the end of the day, we’re all a huge family,” Khanbalinov said.
“If you need help with something, if you need assistance with something, if you’re struggling with something, just ask someone.”
All the selectees were E-3s or below and several of them didn’t respond to requests for comment by Navy Times.
But Machinist’s Mate (Nuclear) 1st Class Danielle Traverso was one of the sailors who helped Chief Khan with his effort and she recalled what it was like being a junior sailor.
“One year I ate Chinese food and went to the movies,” recalled Traverso, who is currently assigned to Los Angeles as a recruiter. “You’re by yourself and it can really be a downer.”
Traverso said she hopes their outreach helps junior sailors realize the Navy is a family and that they are valued.
“Day to day you might get lost on the bottom of the totem pole,” she said. “You have a stack of people above you. But at least this shows that we are higher rank and we do care.”
Allen Bongiovi, a 26-year-old Navy veteran, was another donor who helped Chief Khan.
While on active duty, Cryptologic Technician - Collection 2nd class Bongiovi was always fortunate enough to get home for the holidays. But he sympathized with young sailors as the holidays approached.
“I was a sponsor for a lot of sailors who couldn’t make it home for the holidays, or get leave approved, or their folks couldn’t afford it,” said Bongiovi, who’s now in the Individual Ready Reserve.
“They ended up being that sailor who lives or eats on the ship on Christmas Day. That’s unfortunate to see, and it’s good to help them get to their families.”
Bongiovi said he’s heartened when social media can be channeled in a positive way.
“We always preach in the Navy to look out for your shipmates and recognize when they need help,” he said. “Efforts like this that Chief put together, people are willing to do it. You just kind of have to ask.”