Cultural diversity in the U.S. Air Force

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, NORTH CAROLINA -- "We have become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams" - President Jimmy Carter

Growing up a minority, I experienced cultural diversity my entire life. My mother is from Korea, and my father grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota as an Oglala Sioux tribe member. When I was 11, my father entered the U.S. Army and taught at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. It was during these formative years, that my sisters and I also learned firsthand about the strengths of cultural diversity around our dinner table.

Webster's Dictionary defines cultural diversity as "the cultural variety and cultural differences that exist on the world, a society, or an institution." Cultural diversity, specifically people from different backgrounds, brings different ideas and opinions, reinforcing value systems, and different life experiences that can often be a great catalyst to new innovations, methods, and ideas.

We see this in several examples throughout our past and recent history in the Air Force.

Lt. Gen. Elwood "Pete" Quesada, a Hispanic American, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1924. As a young pilot officer, he helped develop air-to-air refueling techniques with Air Corps legends Ira Eaker and Carl Spaatz. Quesada is best known for his leadership in World War II leading tactical air forces in their support of Operation Overlord during the invasion of France. What many people don't know is that while serving as commanding general of the 9th Air Force, Quesada pioneered many innovations that helped turn the tide of the war in France. Among those innovations, he developed methods for air-to-ground integration between ground forces and airplanes overhead. These techniques became the first examples of integrated close air support, which we have seen prove decisive in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. He also helped pioneer the use of microwave early warning radar to help find enemy fighters while vectoring friendly fighters to intercept them. After the war, Quesada became the first commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC) the precursor to today's Air Combat Command. He also served as the first administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1959-1961.

Another example in the history books is U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka, was the first astronaut of Asian descent in the history of the U.S. space program. As a young man, he sought challenges in mainstream American groups, such as the 4-H Club and the Boy Scouts of America. He even reached the rank of Eagle Scout. Onizuka graduated with distinction from the University of Colorado with advanced degrees in aerospace engineering, while also focusing on receiving a commission in the AF. He later went on to attend the AF Test Pilot School as a flight test engineer. Later in his career, he became an astronaut and worked as a team member on the Space Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory test and revision software team. He flew his first space shuttle mission on Jan. 27, 1985 and accumulated 74 hours in space. He was killed, Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its launch into space. His legacy is still felt to this day as the first Asian American astronaut.

I don't need to study AF history to see or understand cultural diversity; I see it firsthand every day when I walk down the halls of my squadron, where our mission is to qualify new and noncurrent aircrew personnel to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft.

Staff Sgt. Kristina Stephens, 334th Fighter Squadron Aviation Resource Manager assistant NCO in charge, hails from Fayetteville, North Carolina. She helps manage flight records for 75 aircrew personnel and is a key element in the success of the squadron's mission.

Senior Airman Dantrell Hunt from Georgia assists her. Dantrell came into the AF with a bachelor's degree in Business Administration and is studying for the AF Officer's Qualification Test to apply to Officer Training School (OTS).

Next is 1st Lt. Wayne Smith, a prior enlisted maintenance specialist from New Orleans, Louisiana. He finished his degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University while stationed at Hurlburt Field, Florida and was later accepted to OTS. Now, Wayne is two months from graduating as an F-15E aircraft Combat Systems Officer. Upon graduation, he will move to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England, where he will deploy and defend our nation's interests.

Finally, Capt. Mike Trott, who is half-Korean like me, will follow Wayne to England. Trott is from Jacksonville, North Carolina. After he graduated from high school, he applied to and was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He too from a young age understood the impact of cultural diversity in our society.

"My Asian heritage has allowed me to understand, identify with, and appreciate those with different backgrounds (social, economic, ethnic) from an early age," Trott said. "It has served me well through school and in my Air Force career."

Cultural diversity is one of the many things that make our nation great. We have dedicated people from many different walks of life that bring different experiences to the table. Looking back, I think our country has come a long way to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is the cultural diversity we share in our society. Diversity has shaped not only the way we perceive ourselves but also in the character we put forward to the rest of the world. That diversity translates well to the AF and the men and women who serve in it.