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Latinas in the Armed Forces

Opportunities for All.

By Gloria Romano-Barrera.

Women have defended the United States for years. They have contributed their talents, skills and courage to this endeavor with dedication. Whether they are in the U.S. military academy, serve in combat roles or are civilians, the military has enable women to have successful careers. Meet 16 Latinas that despite challenges and sometimes dangerous work, thoroughly enjoy their jobs in the military—and continue to serve the country with pride.

Sergeant Major Linda Kessinger,
United States Army

“I joined the military because I wanted to help my mom,” says SGM Linda Kessinger who comes from a single parent home. “Growing up we didn’t have much and my mom was working two jobs just to have a roof over our head. We lived on welfare and food stamps and there were times when we were evicted from the house we were living in. I always wanted to join the military but my mom didn’t want to let me go so when I turned 21 and still without a good job which I would consider a career job, I decided to walk to the Recruiting Station and joined the Army. My goal was to stay in just long enough to save money so I could go to college and help my mom with my brothers and sisters.”

A native of Seguin, Texas, Kessinger enlisted in the U.S. Army delayed entry program in 1984 and entered active duty on January 24,1985. Her military occupations are 71L (Administrative Specialist) and 42A (Human Resources Specialist).

Her advice to women is to ‘never forget where you came from and never let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish something just because of the color of your skin or the language you speak. “Set short and long term goals and follow through with them; if you fall, get up, dust yourself and try again,” she shares. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever one day be a Sergeant Major or stay in the Army 32 years and accomplish the things I did.”

Staff Sergeant Christina Mota-Aguiar,
United States Marine Corps

Born in Patterson, California SSgt Christina Mota-Aguiar enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2004. Reporting to recruit training in May 2004, Mota-Aguiar wanted to serve in the military because it was her way of giving back to a country that has afforded her so many opportunities. “My mother made so many sacrifices when she left Mexico to come to the United States and I know she did it to give her family a better life,” she shares. “I’ll never take that for granted.”

For Mota-Aguiar, being able to influence the young men and women looking for a career path in life is the best part of her job. Throughout the years, she has learned that nothing is ever easy but if you are willing to work hard for what you want, nothing is impossible.

In September 2012, she deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operations Enduring Freedom as a team leader for Cultural Support Team 82-1, Special Operations Task Force West. In 2016 she reported to her assignment as Staff Non-Commissioned.

Although balancing work and family is one of the biggest challenges she’s had to face, she has acquired appreciation for the simple things in life and today her advice to Latinas is to “be willing to put in the work, be driven and motivated.”

Maritza Carillo (Civ),
United States Marine Corps

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, Maritza Carillo grew up in Yakima, Washington. She attended schools in Yakima and Selah. In June 2003, Carrillo enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Supply Administration/Warehouse Clerk. In November, 2007, she began her federal service career as civilian employee with the Facilities Maintenance Branch at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. In April 2015, she was promoted to Financial Management Analyst.

The first in her family to join the service, her family was very surprised when she decided to join because that meant she would be apart from them. Today, she remains strong and committed to her decision.

“I consider that the best part of my job is that we are always learning from others and that also gives me the opportunity to show the new generation what I know from my experiences,” says the proud mother who teaches her daughters the values and principles she learned from family, the Marine Corps, and service to the nation. “I have learned through the years that I am a capable person that I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to it. Applying the leadership traits that I learned from the Marine Corps had helped me on my personal and professional life.”

Petty Officer Second Class Evelin-Yanet R. Garcia,
United States Navy

“I decided to join the military because the idea always intrigued me, but it never seemed to be the right time,” shares LN2(AW) Evelin Yanet Garcia of her career beginnings.

Born in Salinas, California, Garcia earned her Associate of Arts degree in Business Administration. After earning her degree and entering the nonprofit workforce, she decided to join the military in April 2009.
“The Navy has afforded me so many opportunities that might be difficult to achieve without the military being a part of me,” she shares. “I decided to make the military my career in 2014 when I decided to reenlist for six more years. At this time, I was transitioning into my current military rate and decided to extend as much as I could. I truly enjoy being a Navy Legalman and look forward to going into work every day.”

Working in the legal field in the military has allowed Garcia to reach out to military service members and their families as a translator. “We tend to forget at times that the military is a great melting pot of different cultures and sometimes we have families that do not speak English so they feel they cannot turn to their big military family for assistance due to language barriers. I am working diligently every day to narrow that gap.”

Belia Cook (Civ),
United States Navy

Born in Ventura, California, Belia Cook began her career with the Navy at age 16. Starting as a student aide at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme, she attended Oxnard College and Ventura College before earning a Bachelor’s in Business Management and a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix.

“After two years of starting my job; I learned all the opportunities PHD NSWC had to offer,” shares the civilian. “My family was glad I made this career choice.”

Throughout her career she has learned that it is important to obtain a mentor and to not be afraid to speak up. “I don’t think if I had a mentor I would be where I am today. Ask for help and be assertive in learning that next position you are interested in.”

A strong-willed and strong-minded individual, she has become a Lean Six-Sigma certified and is involved in a number of leadership initiative focus groups. Cook is a community advocate and an active fitness enthusiast and has participated in six Iron Man events and more than 50 marathons and triathlons.

She has mentored and guided Latinos through achieving their career goals. She has also encouraged Latinos to live a healthy lifestyle; “I have guided them in achieving this.”

Her advice is to seek mentors, be assertive and achieve career goals they would like to achieve.

First Lieutenant Karen
Rubin-Santos,
United States Air Force

“I joined the military because I knew that I wanted to give back and serve our country in some way,” states 1st Lt Karen Rubin-Santos. “I have also had a passion for flying since I was little and I thought that joining the Air Force would be the perfect place for me to fulfill my dream.”

Born in Miami, Florida, Rubin-Santos was 18 years old when she committed to the Air Force. She attended the United States Air Force Academy and was a Distinguished Graduate with Bachelor’s of Science in Political Science and Foreign Area Studies in May 2013. Selected to attend Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, where she trained in the T-6 Texan II and the T-1A Jayhawk. She earned her wings in December 2014 and is the only female FAIP and 1 of 3 female instructors at 37th Flying Training Squadron.

“Being a pilot in the Air Force, the service commitment is 10 years after graduating from the Academy. Once I started pilot training, I realized that I could totally do this for the rest of my career and that if it were to work out for my family, that I would love to serve in the Air Force for 20 years and make a career out of it.”

Her passion for flying and for serving her country gives her the strength to blaze the trails in this field. “I don’t really see the difference between women and men,” she shares. “You are either willing to put in the work and you can fly planes, or you can’t. I have never been treated differently for being a female and the expectations were the same for all of us. Sure, there weren’t many females around, but that just fired me up even more to chase my dreams and make them happen.”

Master Sergeant Sonora Vasquez,
United States Air Force

Master Sergeant Sonora L. Vasquez is the Superintendent of Military Personnel for the 517th Training Group, Presidio of Monterey, California. She grew up in San Juan Bautista, California and entered the Air Force in June 1999.

“Prior to enlisting, I was on path with no direction. My sister had joined the Air Force roughly nine years earlier but the armed forces didn’t occur to me as an option at the time. It wasn’t easy growing up in a community that lacked resources. Families in my local community had thrown me a lifeline. Their support coupled with my work ethic has helped me flourish in the military…in a sense I followed in my sister’s footsteps…I chose life.”

MSgt Vasquez deployed in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM/IRAQI FREEDOM. Growing up in a rural town and through her time in the military, she has learned to take responsibility for her actions.

“I have not allowed myself to be shaped by my circumstance rather by the decisions I have made when faced with adversity,” she states. “I have also learned to be thankful for the “nay-sayers”. It is because of them, that I have developed a strong work ethic and a drive for excellence. Although dedication, hard work and service can be acquired outside of the military, I do not think there is any other place I could have developed these attributes with such a greater sense of purpose. I have honorably served my country in the armed forces for over 17 years. My abilities are not defined by my gender but by my will and determination.”

Rosa Marlin,
United States Air Force

Born in Chicago, Illinois Rosa Marlin enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on February 1985 and completed the F-111 Integrated Avionics Computerized Test Station and Aircraft Component Specialist at Lowry AFB, Colorado.

Retiring from the military in 2006 and joining the Civil Service thru DoD as an Avionics Test Station and Aircraft Components Instructor, Marlin currently works for the Dept. of the Air Force as Curriculum Development Manager for fighter courses.

“The military promotes you – expectations fulfill the duties commensurate to rank,” she states. “I gained confidence in myself and was able to present views/opinions. I progressed to different levels of leadership – section chief, flight chief, and squadron superintendent. Each position brought new challenges and responsibilities. No private sector/civilian position would have provided such growth opportunity. I do not think I would have ever reached this level had I not joined the military.”

Marlin has managed to handle changes, stress, and so much more from the demands of the different positions held while active duty. Her advice is to “produce the best, work hard, and always be willing to learn. “Never believe that you know it all – there is always something we can improve on/do better. First impressions are hard to eliminate. Don’t put up a facade, people will see right thru you. Most of all – your “word” is gold. Never betray that honor.”

Lieutenant Katrian
Hernandez,
United States Coast Guard

A native of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, LT Katrian Hernandez was recruited into the Coast Guard College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative Program (CSPI) on May 2003. Upon graduation from boot camp, she returned to Puerto Rico to finish her Bachelor’s Degree and in June 2005 she earned her degree in Psychology from the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. She attended and graduated from Officer Candidate School on March 2006.

Hearing rescue stories from her dad who was also in the Coast Guard inspired Hernandez to join. Assigned as Investigation Division Chief at Sector Lower Mississippi River, the best part of her job is to help out mariners and vessel operators. She has learned to be persistent and tenacious, and believes “opportunities are not just going to fall on your lap, you have to take control of your future.”

A proud mother of four-year-old son, Keymani Ruiz, she volunteers at local schools and serves the local community. “I feel my biggest contributions come when I’m contacted by people whom someone recommended they talk to me. These interactions allow me to share with others, whether interested in the CG or not, my experiences and lessons learned which hopefully empowers them to follow their dreams. During my time at CG Sector Lower Mississippi River I have tried to showcase the importance of leadership and diversity within the organization. I have been very dedicated to this and hope that everyone who served with me felt valued and understands the importance of having a diverse workforce.”

Lushens K. McNamara (Civ),
United States Coast Guard

An accountant at the United States Coast Guard Finance Center in Chesapeake, Virginia, serving in the Internal Controls Branch, Lushens McNamara knew she wanted to make a career in the federal government during her junior year at Old Dominion University once she completed a co-op internship with the USCG Finance Center in Chesapeake, Virginia.

In 2006, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Accounting with a minor in management from Old Dominion University and is currently studying for her CGFM.

Responsibility and integrity are only a few traits McNamara has developed from civilian life and her advice is to have confidence. “There are people out there that want you to succeed,” she shares. “They want you to do well. You have to pay your dues and reach out, and not be afraid to ask for help, too. While I’m all about believing in yourself and doing anything you can to make your own dreams come true, one way to really make a mark is to encourage someone else’s dreams. By being supportive and encouraging of others, you are making a difference not only in their world but potentially in the world of others. For example, I’ve been fortunate enough to have many, many supportive people in my life. My parents, teachers, friends have always supported me and encouraged me. Because of this, I want to support and encourage others and I hope that when I encourage other people that they then want to encourage people as well.”

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Darysabel Lopez,
United States Army National Guard

Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Chief Warrant Officer Three Darysabel Lopez joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard in 1995. Her desire to join the Army and become a Police Officer began as a child while participating in the Liga Atletica Policiaca, a youth program which taught military drill and ceremony movements and would instill a military style discipline.

“I realized I wanted to make a career out of the Army after my third year of service,” she states. “I felt such sense of pride deeply in my heart to serve and protect my country once I deployed to Afghanistan in Support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Serving my country gave me a strong sense of pride and service. The military has provided me with so much opportunities such as obtaining my Masters in Business Administration (MBA) where I feel humble to be a part of the freedom of this country.”

Her current assignment is Warrant Officer Strength Manager, Recruiting and Retention Battalion, Massachusetts Army National Guard, Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts. CW3 Lopez civilian occupation is as a Police Officer for the Worcester Police Department.

Dania Aponte (Civ), United States Army
National Guard

“Every day I have the privilege of working with an excellent team of individuals whose focus is geared towards ensuring our Soldiers and Civilians work in an updated, clean, safe and premier facility,” shares Dania Aponte, a manager with over 28 years of experience in transportation and strategic planning, policy development and implementation, and environmental compliance.

“Ultimately, the best part of my job is the enjoyment and fulfillment I feel on a daily basis on having gotten a step closer to fulfilling our organization’s goals, and once those goals are fulfilled, moving on to the next project with enthusiasm and great expectations.”

A believer in excellence in all that she does, Aponte strives to be the best at anything she puts her mind to and believes that trail blazers have vision and the courage to see a future designed by them. “Having a mother in the education field and a father in the military, l learned first-hand the importance of discipline, hard work, and education,” she states. “They fostered in me excellence in all I do, regardless of the task; the thirst for knowledge; and, the self-confidence to do and be anything I envision.”

Her advice is to always be tenacious and resourceful. “If you believe in yourself and your abilities, nothing can stop you,” she says. “Be courageous and generous, and know that what you’re about to do, will not only impact you, but others coming after you.”

Cadet Gabriela
Barrera-Gutierrez, United States Military Academy

Born in Cuenca, Ecuador Cadet Gabriela C. Barrera moved to Lodi, New Jersey in 2002, and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2013. Joining because she wanted to serve her country, the Mechanical Engineering major and club athlete, continues her pursuit of excellence in academics, athletics, and as a cadet.

“I love being able to help people and lead teams to succeed in anything, whether it’s athletics, academics, or military goals,” she shares of her role at the academy. “When I first came to this country, I had to assimilate to American culture and learn English. This taught me resilience and I was able to overcome adversity at a young age, which translated to my abilities to do well at West Point. West Point forces you to fail in order for you to learn how to overcome adversity and learn to keep moving forward. I developed resilience and confidence that I would not have acquired elsewhere.”

A member of West Point Women’s Boxing Team and a two-time national runner-up. Serves as Secretary of Big Brothers Big Sisters Chapter and Vice-President of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Chapter. Her goals are to become a successful Army Officer and pursue a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and Public Policy.

Midshipmen First Class
Isabel Krause, United States Naval Academy

Midshipman 1/c Isabel Krause comes from a Navy family and spent most of her childhood in Naples, Italy. Majoring in Systems Engineering and recently completed her minor in Spanish upon return from a semester abroad at the Spanish Naval Academy in Spain, Krause joined the military right out of high school in 2013.

“My motivation for joining stemmed from my desire to serve the country that had blessed me with an abundance of opportunities and to defend the United States from people who would stand against the freedoms and opportunities we provide,” she shares. “Having grown up in the military, I knew it would be challenging…but I also knew it would be an adventure. My family was not at all surprised that I made a similar choice to theirs; serving is just as much a part of our heritage as being Latina is.”

Self-discipline is a trait she has acquired from the military. “The military engrains discipline into its members very early on in our training pipeline,” she states. “Without discipline, members would not have the integrity to stand their watches.”

Krause is a member of the Navy Women’s Track & Field team and competes in the High Jump. She is also a member of the Academy’s Gospel Choir and is the Operations Officer for Allies, a group that focuses on Civil Military relations. She is currently a squad leader at the Academy and hopes to one day become a Submarine Officer in the United States Navy.

Cadet First Class Leslie Perez,
United States Air Force Academy

Born in Fort Campbell, TN to parents, Carlos and Lourdes Perez, both native Puerto Ricans, Cadet 1/c Leslie Perez’ father was a career Army officer.

“My father and my mother are my heroes,” she shares. “As a young girl, I remember looking up to my parent’s with the most profound inspiration, but you never fully understand it as a child. You never realize the impact of watching your father leave for work in the morning, proudly…You never realize the impact until you look down at your own combat boots during Basic Cadet Training and reminisce, “They look like Dad’s.” When I was in high school my father was my hero, not only because of his service but because of his character. He showed me what it was to love service and leadership.”

Perez found herself desiring to embody that same character, same leadership, and same service of her father and following her acceptance to USAFA, she began Basic Cadet Training immediately after graduating from high school at the age of 18.

“I saw how dedicated and optimistic the men and women deployed were,” she states. “They realized the importance of their mission, and they all seemed so united because they recognized the importance of being there for one another. I realized then that I loved the mission of the Air Force, but I loved the camaraderie even more. It was after this experience that I began to hope about making a career out of the Air Force.”

Cadet First Class Ruth T. Salvatori,
United States Coast Guard Academy

Born in Puebla, Mexico and raised in different parts of Mexico Cadet 1/c Ruth A. Tress Salvatori’s father, an Admiral in the Mexican Navy, inspired her to join the Mexican Navy. In 2010, she was accepted to the Mexican Naval Academy forming part of the third generation of women accepted in this honorable institution.

“When I was deciding between going to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy or keep studying at the Mexican Naval Academy. I realized that there were a lot of things that had to be improved in my service and having the responsibility of being part of the first groups of females meant that I had to set the people coming after me for success. I realized that attending another service academy will give me a different perspective on how things are done. The more and more I think about things I can possibly make a change or an impact on the more I want to stay serving for my country.”

For Salvatori, maturity and leadership skills are the two most important skills she has acquired from the military. “Since day one we are trained to become responsible and after a year we start getting in charge of people,” she shares. “Being able to handle life situations and still keep going on with the mission forced me to mature faster than my civilian friends. Leadership is everyday’s menu and the academy is designed to be a training environment to develop leadership skills. More than getting an undergraduate degree, we are being trained to be in charge of people and guide them through the right path. It is a huge responsibility to be in charge of people and sometimes their lives are in our hands, so becoming a good responsible leader is a quality that everyone must develop. I just want to make my family and country proud of me and I want to be a source of inspiration for the young generations.”

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