AFMAO Airmen share cultural roots, aspirations

  • Published
  • By Capt. Andre Bowser
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations
National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, straddles two months much in the same way that Hispanic culture straddles two languages in the United States.

An example of this language balance — and the necessity for it — was perhaps best exhibited during a recent mission at Dover’s Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, when the family of a fallen service member arrived and only spoke Spanish.

Airman 1st Class Raquel Chaparro, a manager at AFMAO’s Fisher House for the Families of the Fallen at the time, stepped up and wore the two hats of comforting the family during their stay and of serving as translator for base leadership when they visited the bereaved family members.

Chaparro said she was most impacted and perhaps had the greatest impact on that last family she assisted before her deployment ended.

“I was the translator for the base chaplain and commander, or for anyone who visited to pay their respects,” Chaparro said. “I was a language bridge between the family and the visitors.”

Her ease of switching between English and Spanish served a larger, longer-lasting benefit when a video was produced in Spanish featuring her at the Fisher House to benefit future Spanish-speaking guests and viewers.

In reflection on National Hispanic Heritage Month, by definition the term Hispanic means of or relating to Spain or Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Latin America; in popular use, it has become indistinguishable with Spanish-speaking persons living in the U.S. But that definition merely scratches the surface in describing a language and culture that spans the globe.

By example, two Airmen at Dover with connections to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations — while both of Hispanic descent — hail from vastly different ethnic backgrounds under the same cultural banner.

Capt. Victoria Martinez, the executive officer at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and an Air Force Academy graduate, said her ethnic make-up of Portuguese, Spaniard, and Mexican gives her a diverse brand of leadership strength.

“My grandmother calls me a fruit salad,” she said of her family’s matriarch, who is Portuguese. “Coming from so many different cultures, with each having its own perspective on life, as a leader—its more tools in your toolbox.”

Martinez, who said she admired Chaparro’s work ethic and cheery attitude during their time together at AFMAO, also said she saw potential in the younger Airman. “I was happy to learn that Chaparro was being considered for acceptance to my alma mater (U.S. Air Force Academy),” she said.

Chaparro is currently short-listed for the academy and eagerly awaiting a decision in early 2017. She said she inherited her drive from her parents, who are originally from Puerto Rico, and who live in the States now.

“My father is from Aguadilla, a city located in the northwestern region of the island,” she said. “My mother is from Ponce, a larger city in the southern region.”

With similar, and yet diverse, cultural roads bringing them both to Dover, and for a time to AFMAO, Martinez reflected on the importance of the Air Force garnering leaders who come from different backgrounds and desire a career in the service.

“Working at the mortuary will change your life,” she said, elaborating that life’s little problems seem trivial when you’re faced with a constant reminder of how fragile life is, or when you work in positions like Chaparro’s job at the Fisher House. “Especially in seeing and comforting the families of the fallen — you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable — and that’s an important leadership quality.”
Martinez said it was an easy decision to assist Chaparro in her efforts to gain acceptance to the academy because the young service member had the right attitude.

“She reminded me a lot of myself when I was her age: her maturity, her positive attitude,” Martinez said. “Every time she walked into a room she had the biggest smile and it lightened the mood and had an impact, especially with our mission of caring for the families of fallen service members.”

During her six-month deployment that ended in the summer of 2016, Chaparro worked both in the mortuary and at the Fisher House for Tech. Sgt. Dorothy Whitfield, the NCO in charge of the world-class facility dedicated to the families of the fallen.

Whitfield said the junior Airman was the manager on duty of the $3.1 million facility because Chaparro’s maturity exceeded her then-19 years of age. In April, Chaparro was named the Warrior of the Month, a designation that goes to Airmen who excel at their AFMAO jobs.

In Chaparro’s academy efforts, Whitfield said she supported her younger troop for evident reasons.

“She cared for 12 bereaved families, or 64 guests in total, and more than half of the family members wrote letters in appreciation and thanks,” Whitfield said, adding, “Despite the emotional rigors of her deployment, Airman 1st Class Chaparro continued her college education — demonstrating her prioritization of higher learning.”

Chaparro, who graduated from high school in 2014, joined the Air Force shortly thereafter. She had been in the service less than two years before she was called to work in one of the military’s toughest environments apart from fighting in a warzone.

“When I arrived at the AFMAO, for the very first time in my career I faced a serious emotional setback,” she wrote in her academy essay, which is required of all applicants. “I never worked so close to human remains before, and I struggled (with) coping with the idea of death.”

By the end of her deployment, after reporting for work at the 436th Force Support Squadron in the base’s dining facility, Chaparro confessed, “I miss it — the work I did there was just so important.”