Team Holloman strengthened by international heritage

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Corinna Sanabia
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs

“To learn about your peers' cultural backgrounds is a beautiful thing.”

While every Airman has raised their right hand and taken the same oath to join the U.S. Air Force, each member’s diverse culture adds to the strength of Holloman’s unique community.

Senior Airman Erika Vega - Colombia

Erika Vega emigrated from her home country of Colombia at the age of 19, seeking stability and community in the United States.

“I didn’t know the language or anything about the U.S. when I came here, but my dad really wanted me to join the military,” she said. “As the youngest girl in my family, he really wanted me to have financial stability and to be taken care of.”

Following her father’s advice, Vega joined the Air Force. However, only two weeks into BMT, her world was shattered when she received news that he had passed away.

“They offered me the opportunity to go home to Colombia, but I felt that if I went, I would not be able to come back and fulfill my duties to the Air Force, so I chose to stay,” she said. “I was able to accomplish his dream for me.”

Vega made it through BMT and went on to her five-month-long technical training to become an emergency management specialist, all while mourning her father and simultaneously learning English.

“We had to learn all about chemical, biological, radiological and neurological weapons, which I knew nothing about, but on top of that I was learning the language,” she said. “I always had to give more effort than my peers to learn and get good grades, but I pushed through and looked for the positive in everything.”

Vega’s hard work and her ability to find positivity in every situation have served her well in her Air Force career. Now, as an emergency management journeyman for the 49th Civil Engineer Squadron, she uses her position to help others and expand her view of the world.

“Colombia has a beautiful culture; the hospitality and the people are awesome, but I wanted to explore and see more of the world,” she said. “The people, the culture, the family, and the discipline that the Air Force has given me is wonderful. I have the ability to constantly outgrow myself with the opportunities I’ve had to travel, explore and meet new people.”

Vega’s journey through her Air Force career has allowed her to experience new opportunities and meet a diverse network of people.

“I was considering separating from the Air Force, but when I went through Airmen Leadership School here, it reminded me why I love the Air Force,” she said. “I have been able to deploy and go on TDY. I realized I want to stay in to help and connect with people and there are so many opportunities for me to do that in the service.”

Senior Airman Dennis Nketiah - Ghana

Born in and raised in Accra, Ghana, Dennis Nketiah was working in environmental protection and running his own ride-sharing transportation company. However, he and his wife made the decision to move to the U.S. in 2019, seeking better economic opportunities in the States.

“My transition here was so wonderful,” he said. “I was able to work as a dishwasher, I worked in customer service at an airport, at a car dealership as a sales agent, and I worked in a warehouse distribution center.”

While he thoroughly enjoyed the many career opportunities he had in the U.S., when Nketiah heard from a recruiter that joining the Air Force was possible for him, he jumped on the opportunity.

“The U.S. military is the best in the whole world,” he said. “For me to be part of this formidable institution gives me so much pride. Coming from a third-world country and being able to join the best military institution in the world is incredible. It gives me a sense of purpose and loyalty to the United States because of everything I have been afforded here.”

After completing his technical training, he arrived at Holloman and was assigned to the 49th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron as a public health technician, where connecting with the Airmen at Holloman has given Nketiah a sense of purpose and community.

“Right now I am doing audiograms, making sure people’s hearing is within the required threshold as far as their job is concerned,” he said. “I deal with a lot of patients every day and I always try to engage my patients and have fun with them. A lot of people come in stressed out and grumpy, but after talking and connecting with them, they leave smiling.”

Joining the ranks of the United States Air Force has given Nketiah pride in his work. Furthermore, he has brought pride to his family and his home country.

“Being the first person in my family to join the military, and not the Ghanaian military but the U.S. military, makes my family so happy,” he said. “One of my uncles tells people that his nephew is in the U.S. military because it brings him respect.”

Contributing to Holloman’s mission of training world-class Airmen and aircrew for the Great Power Competition has fulfilled his dream of giving back to the U.S. and serving those around him.

“I go back and visit my family in Ghana once in a while,” said Nketiah. “As much as they are happy to see me, they wouldn’t want me to stay. They want me to come back here because they are so proud of everything I am doing.”

Airman 1st Class Malakye Vergara - Guatemala

For many Airmen who were not raised in the U.S., enlisting in the military is a viable option to form a community and build a life in a foreign nation.

Malakye Vergara moved to Guatemala with his family as a young child, where he was raised until the age of 18.

“Because I wasn’t a Guatemalan citizen, I couldn’t work or go to university there, so I made the decision to emigrate to the States as an adult without my family,” he said.

The challenges of moving to another country without the support of family or community around him caused Vergara to struggle, both financially and emotionally.

“I’ve always wanted to join the military, but moving to the United States without my family really made me long for a community,” he said. “I wanted to be part of a culture of something bigger than myself.”

After enlisting in the Air Force, Vergara found his experiences had given him the mental fortitude to survive and succeed in the military environment.

“Growing up in Guatemala, life was not always easy,” he said. “When my family and I first moved there, we were homeless for a time. I learned how to survive and make the best of situations. That mentality has helped me a lot throughout my military career. For a lot of people, Basic Military Training is a very difficult transition. They have never been away from their family and everything is uncomfortable. I already lived that, so when I came to BMT, I was able to adapt and take on a leadership role for other Airmen.”

After completing BMT, Vergara was assigned to Holloman, working as a supply apprentice for the 635th Materiel Maintenance Support Squadron. Not only has he embraced his work in his short time here, he has also created connections within the community, volunteering at the local fire department, playing soccer for the base team, and learning to kickbox.

“I’m trying to meet as many people as I can,” he said. “Putting myself in a mindset that allows me to seek out ways to learn from other people has helped me a lot. The more I’ve learned from the people around me, whether it’s driving ambulances or playing soccer, the more I am able to connect with them outside of the job.”

For Vergara, his journey from Guatemala to the U.S. and into the Air Force has allowed him to serve a large mission while also continuing his own self-growth.

“I am grateful to the Air Force for taking care of me so that I can just learn my job and have fun, because I don’t have to pay for housing and food,” he said. “Beyond all of that, the Air Force has given me the opportunity to learn how to be an adult on my own.”

Vega, Nketiah, and Vergara are among the growing number of members with international backgrounds enlisting in the U.S. military.

“Although we all wear the same uniform, we come from different backgrounds,” said Vega. “That adds so much strength to the Air Force. Different backgrounds and different ways to approach problems expand your mind. To learn about your peers' cultural backgrounds is a beautiful thing.”