Daughter of Refugees Flies For Freedom

  • Published
  • By Carolyn Herrick

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Freedom can mean different things to different Americans; but for one Airman the word strikes a personal and emotional chord that goes beyond definition.

Capt. Cecilia “Feisty” Tuma, 333rd Fighter Squadron F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, is the daughter of refugees who escaped communist Czechoslovakia in 1987, seeking political asylum in the free world with hopes of providing a better life for their family.

“My parents spent two years in a refugee camp in Austria,” she said. “When they left, they didn’t know if they’d see family ever again. They left with the clothes on their back.”

Although she was born in America, Tuma recalls the things her parents had to endure under communism, which compelled them to seek freedom in the United States.

“In a totalitarian regime, there was a lack of basic necessities,” she recounted. “In a capitalistic society, there is a supply and demand, but in communism, there are shortages of everything – fresh fruits and vegetables were only available in season, there were long lines to pick up groceries, and shelves were often bare.”

She explained that worst of all, the totalitarian government dictated what they could and could not do and had total control of the population. Her father was always interested in flying, he earned a private license to fly a glider, but the communist government took away his license because he did not want to join the Communist Party.

“Their story made me appreciate how different America is from where they came from,” said Tuma.

In high school, she learned about the Air Force Academy and the opportunities it would provide to get her education, travel, but more importantly give back to the country that allowed her parents and her to be free.

“My intent was just to serve,” said Tuma, but her path took a turn when she decided to join the glider program, following in her father’s footsteps. Through the aero club there, she discovered a love for adrenaline and became interested in the jump program.

“I wanted to break the speed of sound,” said Tuma.

After graduating she started her initial pilot training at one of the Air Force Training bases. She finished the first phase of training at the top of her class and was selected to transfer to Euro-NATO Joint Pilot Training. Once fully qualified in the Strike Eagle, Tuma – who earned her callsign, “Feisty,” because of her tenacious personality, was assigned to her first operational assignment at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. From there, she deployed to Southwest Asia in 2020.

“We got to support the JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) on the ground,” Feisty said. “We go through all this training, and the whole purpose is to go do the mission. We always wish for no war, but …” her voice trailed off as she contemplated the things she did downrange. “The reason we’re there is to deter terrorists. In that way, we are supporting the people on the ground and keeping terrorist organizations from having so much control.”

Although terrorism is not directly equivalent to the communist regime, Feisty’s family history is what drives her to do what she does, fighting terrorists’ power and control.

“My parents’ story has taught me not to take freedom for granted,” she said. “Many countries still don’t have political, religious and social freedoms. We need to appreciate that and realize they are worth fighting for.”

June 2023 is National Immigrant Heritage Month.