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Airman Credits Panamanian Roots for Military Success

By Bryan Ripple
Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Sept. 17, 2012 – Panamanian-American Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Yessica Lugo considers herself fortunate to be where she is today, given that a lot of her life could have turned out much differently. 

Lugo is superintendent of staff and student personnel services at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute here. She was born in Panama City, Panama, to a mother with a sixth-grade education and spent the first 17 years of her life in what she describes as humble conditions. She and her two sisters had to rely on their own wits and their mother’s paltry $82 weekly salary at a clothing factory to get by.

“I had all the caring and love that I could ask for. My sisters and I never had a problem sharing. We grew up pretty tight and took care of each other so my mom wouldn’t have to worry about us while she was at work. I attribute all of that to where I’m at today,” she said as tears streamed down her cheeks.

It was her mother’s eventual marriage to an American soldier in 1989, the same year that the United States invaded Panama to oust the dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, that brought her to America, where she became a citizen and, despite limited English, enlisted in the Air Force at age 18, hoping to see her dream of becoming a flight attendant come true.  “Basic training was easy to me,” she said. “A lot of people had separation anxiety because it was their first time away from home, but I was used to that by then. The physical part, the training and marching, all of that was easy to me. My mom had already conditioned me to have someone yelling at me.”

After training in Security Forces School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and at Fort Dix, N.J., Lugo quickly found herself in a male-dominated world during her first assignment at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.  It was a very long way from Panama, in both distance and culture.

“If the Air Force could have found anywhere further away from my home, it would have been overseas,” she said. She soon was sent overseas, deploying to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. “The first two months were almost like a cultural adventure with camel rides, visits to downtown markets, wearing the traditional black burkas,” she said. “We always had to be escorted by two males. It was captivating to experience. ”

In that environment, she said, her Latin heritage worked to her advantage. “I was told by some of the locals that I had sort of a cultural advantage from my darker skin tone that didn’t automatically say I was American,” she explained.

The next chapter of her life began at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where she met her future husband, Maj. Angel J. Lugo, then an enlisted Airman Leadership School instructor.   After he was commissioned and assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, the two became concerned their officer-enlisted marriage would raise eyebrows, but Yessica said she never considered separating from the military.

“My role model is my mom, and I never saw her as putting down her shovel for anything or anybody,” she said. “She was a hard worker and a good mom, so I’m thinking there was no way I’m going to stop doing this.”

She’s now been in the Air Force for nearly 19 years, and was just promoted to senior master sergeant. “The Air Force has really worked for me,” she said. Her advice to fellow Hispanics hoping to succeed is to focus on education and always remember their roots.

“Try to make your parents proud,” she said. “I know there are people out there who have struggled harder to get where they are, but hard work, determination and an honorable spirit does make a difference.”

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