KEARNEY — Since he was a young child Kellen Skarka always has liked watching airplanes.
“I always loved looking for planes and watching places in the sky,” said Skarka, now 35.
As a child he and his mother Lori (Weed) Skarka of Kearney often would travel the Midwest to watch air shows. Once, when he was 15, he met three pilots of the World War II Black Sheep Squadron.
That love of flight turned into a desire to fly, and when he turned 16 Skarka started taking flying lessons. He got his pilot’s license while attending the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he received a degree in aviation systems management, and in 2009, he commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
There he became an air support control officer overseeing aviation operations, including air strikes, medical evacuations and coordination of artillery and mortar fires.
“It’s kind of like air traffic control, but not like you see at an airport,” Skarka said. “I control aircraft. I tell them where to go and how to get there. It’s out in the middle of the battlefield with no tower, no radar, we’re operating out of Humvees or out of tents in the middle of nowhere.”
He served two combat deployments to Afghanistan during Operating Enduring Freedom. During the first deployment Skarka was the close battle coordinator where he would direct Marine and joint forces aviation assets for troops on the ground.
On his second deployment Skarka was the senior air coordinator where he supervised all Marine Corps aviation operations, including coordination with other joint force headquarters. He also was deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Inherent Resolve where he was the senior aviation watch officer supervising aviation operations over Iraq and Syria.
Skarka said it was bothersome to watch when the U.S. withdrew its military forces from Afghanistan at the end of August after a 20-year presence in the country. He served in Bagram and the capital city of Kabul.
“How it has ended has been difficult for a lot of us, especially the Marine Corps. It’s a long war, it’s a difficult war, it’s a confusing war. We can’t stay there forever, but it’s just difficult to see how it ended and the way it ended,” he said.
In 2016, Skarka joined the Marine Reserves. Since then he has gone on four training missions to the Republic of Korea where he was the Maine liaison officer to the Air Force for operational insight.
He also was the Marine representative at the Theater Missile Air Defense Command where he advised other military on assets that were critical and that needed to be defended from adversary air and missile strikes.
Since 2018, Skarka has been the operations specialist for the Lincoln Airport Authority where he is responsible for airport certification, safety and training and wildlife programs.
With his experience in space operations in Korea, Skarka is now taking classes from the National Security Space Institute in hopes of working with newly established Space Force.
“There aren’t many Marines in that so it would be nice to be one of the first handful to participate,” he said.
Skarka has worked his way to up the rank of major and has won several awards, including the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and the Korea Defense Service Medal.
He also was honored as the 2015 Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, Nebraska Gamma Chapter Alumnus of the Year. Skarka hopes to serve another eight years in the Marines before retiring.
When he isn’t working Skarka likes golf, tennis, exercising, and most recently he completed a 110-mile, 10-day hike in the Swiss Alps in Switzerland, France and Italy. “It was a trip of a lifetime.”