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Letters from the Front

By Michelle Cazares, Capt., USAF Director of Operations, 425th Air Base Squadron Izmir Air Station, Turkey.

I clearly remember walking home with my cousin and a friend from high school one day and seeing a group of guys in a car staring at us. My cousin and his friend, both males, looked straight ahead to avoid any problems. I knew I was wearing the wrong gang colors for that area but decided to stare back anyway. Seconds later, we heard gun shots coming from the car. We all continued to walk normal—as you never knew if they did it just to scare us and running would just make things worse. Growing up in one of the most gang populated and dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, I had many incidents like this one. I was fortunate to make it through, but not everyone did.

When I was 12 years old, my father started taking me to work with him in the summer. He left his family in Mexico to move to the United States at the young age of 16. He started off as a dishwasher not knowing any English, and with hard work and dedication, he learned English and Greek. He eventually opened a restaurant in the south side of Chicago. Working in the restaurant with him showed me just how hard he worked to provide for the family. This was extremely impactful for me and it really shaped the person I am today.

My father taught me many lessons during the long work days I spent with him. He stressed that I shouldn’t wait for someone to tell me to do something, and to just do it if it needs to be done. He would tell me that no task was too small, and that I should always give it my all. My father was big on culture and wanted us to embrace our Mexican heritage and to be proud of being Mexican American. Seeing how hard he worked and how far he made it, motivated me to work hard myself to make him and my mother proud.

As high school graduation got closer, I thought about how I really wanted to go to college, but I didn’t want my parents to have to pay for it. I knew nothing about the military, but decided to enlist in the Air Force straight out of high school at the age of 17. My plan was to do four years in order to have college paid for. Four years went by and when it was time to get out, I realized I loved being in the military.

Throughout my career, I would always hear my father’s voice in my head telling me to work harder and to take initiative. That voice pushed me to work and study hard, which got me promoted to Master Sergeant (E-7) before my 11-year mark. It got me selected into positions that I wasn’t sure I was ready for, but I gave it my all and was able to be successful. Those words pushed me to get my bachelor’s and master’s degree regardless of deployments and long workdays. Those simple words in my head pushed me into crossing over to the officer side and becoming a Cyberspace Officer.

Now as a Captain, I’m constantly striving to be a positive role model to other Latinas. I want them to see that it doesn’t matter where you come from. You don’t have to come from the nicest neighborhood or the best school. If you have the drive and perseverance to work hard and push through barriers, anything is possible.

Kindergarten class in Mexico, 1988.

Kindergarten class in Mexico, 1988.

Capt. Michelle at her first duty in Dyess AFB, TX, 2001.

Capt. Michelle at her first duty in Dyess AFB, TX, 2001.

Capt. Michelle being promoted to Master Sargent, July 2011.

Capt. Michelle being promoted to Master Sargent, July 2011.

Deployment to Colombia, 2008.

Deployment to Colombia, 2008.