Serving our Country is What I Love

  • Published
  • By Col. Laura Lopez, 195th Wing Deputy Commander
  • 9th Reconnaissance Win Public Affairs

At 21 years old, I was so excited to serve, and I didn’t even realize I was getting paid for it. Coming from a household supported by the Pell Grant, and at times welfare, that first airman 1st class paycheck shocked me.

The only person in my family who had served was a grandparent drafted into the Army, so the military really wasn’t a path I ever thought of. Then, in 1999, I enlisted in the United States Air Force.

I served as an enlisted active duty Airman for two years. I was blessed to be recognized as the distinguished graduate for my Space Systems Operator class, becoming a Defense Satellite Program instructor, and securing an AFROTC spot. This opened the door for a commissioning opportunity I could only dream of despite my thick accent with English being my second language.

I remember how incredibly happy I was, especially as the magnitude of potentially becoming an officer had dawned on me. As an operator, I was told on several occasions “Women do not do certain jobs”. But I have always been stubborn, and I did my best to exert expertise and professionalism, as an airman 1st class. I was lucky to have others, like Staff Sgt. Tashara Williams, not only believed in me but also took care of me even when I didn’t know I needed their help.

When I was first commissioned, I was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. I made use of opportunities to perform, including flight commander and interim squadron commander as a 1st Lt., when my commander at the time deployed. With zero prior experience, I was tasked with taking care of Airmen under my command and keeping morale high. I looked to reading leadership books for help, and never stopped taking care of my Airmen no matter how time-consuming and difficult the job became. Beyond educating myself, it was thanks to Senior Master Sgt. Karen Gandy for helping my lieutenant soul navigate life as a “butter bar” and Col. Regina Goff for her vote of trust.

I was then stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base and served two deployments in Iraq. While on deployment, I served as the Director of Finance for Foreign Military Sales and frequently discussed transactions with an Iraqi 3-star general. During this time, an Iraqi guard questioned where my husband was and declared I should have been at home having children. I confidently replied to him, though an admirable job, that was not every woman’s goal in life. I did want to start a family; however, I took pride in being able to serve active duty beforehand, leading Airmen and even going on deployments. With my last active duty job being the 9th Comptroller Squadron budget officer, at that point in my life, I made a decision that would allow me to prioritize a family while continuing to serve my country; I joined the Air Force Reserves.

I separated as a captain and joined the reserves as part of the Individual Mobilization Augmentee program for Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT). While out-processing at the 9th, Senior Airman Lisa Richardson encouraged me to apply for a civilian job I mistakenly believed I would not be qualified for. I applied and was hired for a national-level comptroller job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

My civilian job with FEMA required a substantial amount of travel to disaster zones. It was rewarding but I decided it was time to be able to come home each night. In 2013, I transitioned to the Air National Guard in New Mexico. That same year I became a mom, my biggest life accomplishment. My son has fueled my sense of purpose, service and commitment.

I then transferred to the California Air National Guard (CA ANG) to serve as the comptroller flight commander for the 195th Wing. Performance in that job turned out to be the real-time interview for my next job. I was selected to serve as the Director of Staff for the CA ANG, which was an exciting but scary job, completely outside my area of comfort and expertise.

Many times, I was the ranking person in the entire CA ANG. I had to build bridges to make things happen, and working with the Army and the Joint Staff was a daily endeavor. For the first time in my entire career, I felt I was being deliberately mentored by some very smart and powerful officers, including my dear friends Col. Shawna Pavey and U.S. Army Col. Tifanny Buethe, who both on many occasions coached me, mentored me, and became my sources of energy.

My bosses at Air Staff kept mentioning my potential for a wing senior leadership role. They repeatedly encouraged me to apply for every vacancy. I remained motivated through my belief in the mission and desire to see Airmen shine, thrive, and reach the impossible. Because of this motivation, and all those who believed and supported me, I currently serve as the Deputy Wing Commander for the 195th Wing, which seems like a dream I never thought would be my reality.

I am beyond thankful for the opportunities and for all the support I have received along the way from women and men, who believed in me more than I believed in myself. I am proud to say that in my military career, I have been ready to always seize the moment while doing my best to remain self-aware and grounded. I am blessed to be in a position to inspire others, there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing those you lead reach career milestones that seemed impossible.

It is an honor to serve. I am thankful for the opportunity to wear the uniform and be part of the greatest Air Force in the world. To all the amazing women in my life, thank you for being part of my story. I salute you.