MSGT JOLEEN CERTEZA CASTRO
U.S. Air Force
Joleen Castro was born in California at Yuba County AFB while her father served as a B-52 Crew Chief. Joleen returned home at the age of 8 and was raised in the village of Yo’ña, Guam. She joined the U.S. Air Force at the age of 32 and served as a Transportation Specialist for the Air Mobility Command and a Citizen Airman for eleven years. In her tenure she has served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (2010), Operation Enduring Freedom & Operation New Dawn (2012) and is currently serving in Operation Inherent Resolve. Joleen has been a passionate veteran advocate for Guam and Micronesia since 2012, holding the presidency for the island’s first veteran non-profit organization representing Iraq, Afghanistan & Persian Gulf veterans. She has been Guam’s co-host for K-57 VetTalk since 2012, serving veterans on-line and on-air. Joleen is currently a professional motivational speaker & coach for “Not Your Average JO” platforms & the Vice President of Strategic Planning for Tao Pacific Designs. She is the mother of three successful children: Kyle, Tessa, & Kiara. She continues to serve our island and nation proudly as a Guam Woman Warrior.
The Decision to Join: Yo’ña, 2008
As a child, Joleen grows up watching and admiring her mentors. She learns from them, valuing the sense of purpose that she sees in them. Her paternal grandfather served in the Korean War and her maternal grandfather was a Prisoner of War during WWII. She grows up instilled with their stories and experiences—of being a POW from Guam on Wake Island and a Navy sailor from Guam—and she’s specifically intrigued with their ways of weaving Chamoru culture into their military experiences. Her father, a retired Senior Master Sergeant of the Air Force, lays the foundation of her military lifestyle as she grows up with the military structure he integrates into his family, as she grows up admiring the respect he had earned in and from his military service. She embraces the ideals of working hard and sacrificing for a greater purpose, and the reality that military service does something, that it changes you.
At the mature age of thirty-two, when the opportunity arises for an Air Transportation Field position in the Guam Air Force Reserves, her impressions of her mentors arise inside of her. She is a twelve-year professional in her corporate career in the transportation industry working for Continental Airlines, she is the mother of three children (Kyle, Tessa and Kiara) and she has plans, big plans. Her plans are stalling; she is a single mother and trying to earn a degree taking one class at a time and working full time and raising three children is not only slow, but expensive.
There are education benefits with this opportunity, and the chance to work part time and invest more time in her classes and her family, and the access to affordable daily living—gasoline, groceries, necessities—that comes with a family’s access to a base. Joleen is also seeing advantages in structuring healthy routines in her life in a way that settles her. Before joining the military, she’s bored. She desires to see more, do more. She wants to challenge herself.
“I knew I was going to get something out of it,” Joleen says.
Boot Camp: Lackland AFB, 2008
Basic Military Training (BMT), Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, 2008.
Joleen’s about to begin several weeks of boot camp, and she’s been preparing. She’s been seeking out advice from her family, her friends, taking it in, considering it all.
At Lackland, she hears training instructors yelling as she steps off the bus. “Step on the yellow dots! Step on the yellow dots!” And suddenly, everything Joleen has been anticipating and preparing for and seeking out of other people’s impressions and memories and lessons becomes real. She instantly realizes the weight of her responsibility.
“It’s all on you,” Joleen remembers. “An amazing, scary feeling.”
There are challenges ahead, many of them. Joleen is thirty-two years old, older than most of the recruits around her; for her first 1.5 mile run, she clocks in at 24 minutes, far longer than the minimum graduation standard required for the Physical Fitness Test. Joleen watches the eighteen-year-olds run by her, chatting easily with her, while she’s sweating, running out of breath and dying. She’s the mother of three children, a professional with a corporate career, and she’s accustomed to being in control, being the authority; her TI (military training instructor) is 26 years old and issuing commands, and she’s having trouble giving up that sense of being in charge. She remembers her dad explaining, “There is always someone you must answer to, always someone in charge. You may not like that answer but when you learn to follow it, you will have the ability to explain why it worked or why it didn’t. Learn to oblige but always figure out what the lesson is, then you will never fail,” a reminder and stories of handling rank and structure.
There is the drilling, which is constant, relentless, from the moment you step off the bus. Recruits must memorize the meaning of every siren tone, every rank and person on your chain of command, every U.S. president, every song, every historical fact given to you, and on and on. And when you’re asked to say what you know, and you guess wrong, your whole team suffers. The women in your flight are the ones who do leg lifts and flutter kicks. When someone gives the wrong answer, the entire flight pays the price. A wingman of Joleen’s is asked the meaning of a wavering tone—her response is so wrong that the entire flight is reprimanded, and has to repeat over and over again “It’s Peace Time! It’s Peace Time!” in shaky voices like little girls crying.
“Seeing them pick on the craziest things, I tell you,” Joleen says. “The lesson was the littlest things can impact so hugely.”
Joleen is thousands of miles from her children, her sisters, her mother, her father, and grandparents, and this is something she never thought she could do—leave her family. Joleen cries the first two weeks she is there. Everyone cries the first few weeks. There are eighteen other women in her flight and 5 other women flights training with Joleen, who for the most part are in their late teens, just out of high school, from all over the country.
“I was alone. I didn’t have anybody,” Joleen says. “And I had a new family and it taught me how to be a part of a new community immediately. It taught me my strengths. It taught me my weaknesses.”
The young women in her flight look up to Joleen as an element leader, and she finds herself learning from them, from being a part of this team. This is part of the training, the drilling: be an airman ready to save your wingman.
Her young TI is having a tough time putting Joleen in check, and Joleen can sense it; she starts thinking about what it means to always want to control it all, how this can be both a weakness and a strength.
Joleen had wanted to be challenged, to see what she was capable of accomplishing. The challenges at Lackland are making clear to Joleen what she draws her strength from: her family, her culture, her spirituality. The strength of her relationships—her father, her mother, her siblings, and her children—is sustaining her, even as the distance from them is testing her. These weeks and months of BMT and AIT (advanced individual training) are a kind of investment for the plans Joleen has for her family, for herself.
“I found out that I can actually put in some equity,” Joleen says, laughing, “sweat and tears. Leaving the family—I never thought I could do that. It wasn’t easy but I did.”
Joleen goes to church at the chapel at Lackland AFB, and she finds comfort there—not only because of her own spirituality, but also because it is, in the middle of Texas, the closest symbol of home.
“I felt comfort at church, also it was my opportunity to find out who was at BMT from Guam because everybody from Guam goes to church,” Joleen says, chuckling.
“I would walk in and say ‘Håfa adai,’ and only those who looked up were from Guam. I believe the Håfa Adai spirit brought comfort to local islanders,” Joleen says, “and instantly you become welcoming arms, and that felt so rewarding.”
She continues the tiring and draining training with the young women in her flight, and they become family as the weeks go by, more and more a synchronized team. Before Basic Training, Joleen had always managed to find her way out of physical training; at Lackland, she pushes herself. She goes on extra night runs, expecting to run by herself in the cold, and finds her teammates joining her. And these women, these teammates, are strengthening her physically and mentally; she is learning so much from them. The extra runs pay off: she shortens her run time by nearly 10 minutes in less than two months, clocking in at 14:20 for the 1.5 mile run, her personal best. “This is one of the many needed validations of goals set out for myself when I enlisted, and I killed it,” Joleen says.
“Basic Training for me was really intense. But I found out that I can get through some tough crap,” Joleen says. “I tell anyone who joins now that Basic Training is a game, a strategy, and you just have to figure it out, believe in yourself and remind yourself, giving up is not an option.”
“The memories of my wingmen who became family, the crazy stuff we went through, the killer stuff we’ve overcome, is what I recall the most,” Joleen says. “All the memories of the experience, the team that we built together.”
Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar
It’s 2010. Joleen is deployed as air transportation specialist to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the basing hub for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the Aerial Port, she handles passengers and cargo on the flightline, offloading supplies, equipment, and passengers. Her team assists and prepares soldiers and personnel as they board aircraft bound for the combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is Joleen’s first deployment.
“As much as you try to prepare, as much as the Air Force trains you to prepare you for this mission,” Joleen reflects, “nobody can really prepare you for this. You can’t understand this until you go through it.”
For Joleen, the change is clear: in one moment, she is in Guam, with her comfortable career, with her wonderful family. In the next, she’s dropped into an unfamiliar community and the larger region of the Middle East, and there is a conflict on. It is life-changing.
The change is tough, and Joleen manages that change by thinking of ways that her parents raised her—to think positive, to be positive, in order to keep moving forward.
This outlook helps, moment to moment. You can take moments that are difficult, conditions that are difficult, and you can make them great, for you and for the people around you. And this is what Joleen does, for herself and her team.
But there are moments when reality itself, the reality of what you are seeing, interrupts and interferes. And what Joleen sees on deployment—preparing and shipping husbands, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters; sending out soldiers to war—is the real impact of the war she is supporting.
“Every single day, we brought back heroes in coffins draped with a US flag, giving them the traditional honor of their arrival and departure. Stand-downs on the flightline would sometimes last hours, that’s how many heroes we transported on a daily basis,” Joleen remembers.
“Those same days, we loaded aircrafts full of standing men in uniform, with their full gear on ready to fight as they stepped off the plane,” Joleen says.
“It is in those everyday moments that I felt my positive drive shaken by the reality of what my mission and purpose was,” Joleen says. “For the sake of my team and the safety of my wingman, those touchy moments were short lived. I trained myself to snap out of it, get back to reality, get back to the mission and stay focused.”
To do this every day, to see this every day, a different kind of reality takes over: this is work. Your job is to follow the checklist and complete the mission. These procedures, these steps, these rhythms of the day, the airmen on this team in step with one another, over and over again.
“It was groundhogs, every day,” Joleen says.
Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, 2010
On the flightline, Joleen looks forward to scanning passengers’ names for soldiers from Guam transiting Qatar. She wants to give them a warm “Hafa Adai,” like she did in BMT. These soldiers are scheduled to board the ramp that Joleen’s team handles, boarding planes bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What got me was the reality of the men and women of my island that I’d have to send out and say ‘Goodbye,’ knowing they are headed into danger,” Joleen says.
When the soldiers from Guam return on planes from combat zones, they celebrate in Qatar with barbecues—just like home. With their missions complete, Joleen and her team put them back on planes bound for the Pacific, for home, to their families waiting to give them a real fiesta.
Every now and then, the rhythm of the day changes. A few times during her tour, as she looks over the manifest of soldiers killed in action, KIA heroes to offload from the plane on her flightline, she spots a familiar name—a name that carries the island with it.
“There were two incidents where we did review the list and it was the local names, ‘Pereda,’” Joleen says, choking up. “You know?”
“So those names—and then your family calling and saying, ‘Hey did you hear about…?’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, I just put him on a plane.’”
The journey continues.