By Ms. Jodi L. Jordan
Working as a linguist intern for the U.S. Army Mission in Colombia in 2014, Master Sgt. Alejandro Velez fit in with the local community well – maybe too well. “It was funny,” he said, “because the Colombian military would be like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s Colombian. He must have stolen that uniform.'”
As a member of the Language Enabled Airman Program, Velez was assigned to coordinate and lead high-level functions between U.S forces and the Colombian military, a task that required deep cultural understanding and impeccable language skills. Velez had lived in Colombia almost since birth, speaking only Spanish until moving to the U.S. and joining the U.S. Air Force. His background was an irreplaceable asset on the LEAP assignment – and it was also what Velez had considered his biggest weakness for most of his career.
Velez is the myPers Marketing Manager at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, and he has been a LEAP participant since 2013. LEAP is a career-spanning program operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. LEAP sustains, enhances and helps the Air Force use the existing language skills of Airmen. The program develops cross-culturally competent leaders across all Air Force specialties – people like Velez who can use their skills around the world.
Velez’s story began in Miami, Fla., where he was born in 1982. Before the year was over, his parents moved him and the rest of his family back to their hometown of Medellin, Colombia. Velez had his American citizenship, but no memories or cultural ties to the U.S. He grew up in the middle of the “Narcos” era – the conflict between the Colombian government and the drug cartels. As with many and Medellin families, Velez’s was deeply intertwined with the Pablo Escobar drug reign.
“I grew up wealthy,” Velez said. “We had maids, drivers and basically anything I wanted I just had to ask and I would get it”. As a young boy, Velez was innocent to the source of his family’s prosperity. “My father had a car dealership, and that’s what I thought he did,” Velez recalled. That innocence was shattered when Velez was only 10, and his father was murdered in the violence of Medellin’s drug trade. Things changed, and rapidly. He began to notice that his friends from school never invited him to their homes, and their parents didn’t allow them to visit his, either. “I asked why, and they finally told me. My father was allegedly part of the Medellin cartel, and their parents believed that I was going to end up just like him a ‘bad guy,’ too – a negative influence on them.”
It didn’t take long before Velez was pursuing the exact life that he’d been predicted to have. “I grew up with a lot of hate and vengeance,” he said. “Without really admitting it to myself I wanted to be like my father.” His mother sent him to the best private schools. He got kicked out of them all. She tried to get him to concentrate on his studies, including learning English, but Velez didn’t want any part of it. “I’d say, ‘What do I need English for? I’m not going to America. And if I do, I am not worry, they speak Spanish in Miami, Los Angeles and New York, those are the only places I may visit and I don’t need English there!”
He adored his mother, but he continued to fight her efforts to lead him to another life, leaving the house at 16 and financing his own party lifestyle through illicit activities. “I was risking my life every day – and my bad decisions got me in deep trouble with the wrong people.” He could have easily ended up as another dead gangster apprentice, but one day he got a phone call from his sister, saying he needed to come to his mother’s house immediately.
Velez entered the home, and found his mother distraught – in the grips of a mental breakdown, and he blamed himself. “She didn’t even recognize me. She kept calling me Rafael – my father’s name,” he said. “I knew at that moment that it was all because of me. I knew I needed to change, and I thought that the only way to cure her was by turning my life around and making her proud of me for the first time.”
Having grown up watching American movies, Velez knew the outlines of the American dream. He decided he’d go to Miami, and things would be different. He left without telling his family, taking a pile of cash he had saved, with his U.S. birth certificate but without any English skills. He figured once he got to the States, it would all work out. Things wouldn’t be so simple, though. Within two months he was out of money and basically homeless. He found shelter at a local church, where a Spanish-speaking priest took him in and gave him food and shelter in return for Velez’s limited handyman skills.
“I wasn’t familiar with any type of manual labor, including basic chores such as making my own bed, or washing dishes, and to make matters worse, I couldn’t even speak any English.” Velez did his best, but said he was wracked with guilt about taking help from the priest, and about his failure at achieving the American dream on his own. When the priest told him about a member of the congregation whose son had “made good” by joining the military, Velez was desperate enough to visit a local Air Force recruiting center. “I went in, and I just looked for the most Hispanic-looking name on a uniform,” he said. “I found a Senior Airman Garcia, and I didn’t know what Senior Airman was, so I figured he was the most important person there,” Velez recounted. “I told him ‘I don’t speak English but I am an American citizen. Can I join the Air Force?’
Velez was soon signed up to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test – the test, given in English, which would determine if he could join the Air Force or not. “I looked at the computer, and it may have as well been written in Mandarin Chinese,” he said. “I just went down the list, picking ‘a,b,c,d’ at random. When we got back to the recruiter’s office, and Garcia was going to open my test results, I told him, ‘Don’t bother even opening it. Save me the embarrassment.”
Somehow, Velez has passed, earning a score high enough to get him to basic training, and to ensure a job in the Security Forces career field. Within a week, Velez was on his way to Lackland Air Force Base, with one backpack containing all his possessions, and still no English language skills, but these helpful instructions from his recruiter – “He said, ‘go to the airport, and find all the people standing around who look like you, wait for someone in a uniform to tell you what to do and then follow what everyone else is doing.”
Within a few minutes of departing the bus at Lackland, Velez drew the attention of the Military Training Instructors. He had no idea of how to follow the instructions they were shouting at him. “I just kept saying ‘No English,’ and they pretty much thought I was lying at first because they couldn’t believe it. Finally, they went and got an MTI who spoke Spanish to communicate with me and I explained to him that it was true – I didn’t speak English. At that point they didn’t know what to do with me, I was considered a mistake.”
After a hasty conference with the squadron leadership, the MTI returned and gave Velez a few options – he could get out of the Air Force and go back to Miami – no questions asked. He could go to an English language school for six months, or, he could stay at Lackland and try to make it through. This wasn’t any pep talk, though. Velez said it was clear which option the MTI wanted him to take. “He told me, ‘If you stay, people aren’t going to help you – they aren’t even going to like you. You’re going to have to learn English on your own, stay out of trouble and somehow try to graduate. Personally, I don’t think that you will make it, but is your choice,’” Velez said. Velez was done running. He decided to stay.
“That was the first time I realized that I was different, and that unfortunately, racism was actually real,” he said. “From that point on, I was known as ‘Juan Valdez,’ ‘Pablo Escobar or ‘Shakiro’ which didn’t really bother me. At the end of the day I knew that I wasn’t forced in to the Air Force, I was fortunate to have been accepted by it.”
When it came to physical military performance, Velez never had a problem, but he was challenged by academics. The trainees all were issued books of Air Force history and information to study in preparation for a final exam at the end of training. Velez had to find a way to manage without being able to read English at all.
He started sneaking out of bed every night, sitting in the latrine and studying his book. He couldn’t understand the words, but forced them into memory. “When everyone was sleeping, I was trying to learn English and study at the same time. I couldn’t afford any breaks or rest time if I wanted to graduate,” he said. When the time came for the test, he passed with the minimum score. At graduation, his main MTI sought him out. “I didn’t have any family at graduation, so I thought, ‘hey, maybe he knows today is also my birthday so he’s going to congratulate me finally. Maybe he’s going to invite me to dinner or something!”
Instead, Velez got another lecture in resiliency and overcoming adversity. “He was sincere with me, maybe too sincere,” Velez said. The MTI admitted that he was impressed, and that Velez should be proud. “But he also said that it was just a ‘fluke.’ He said I needed to be realistic about my capacities and avoid any further humiliation. The MTI explained that Velez would be going to his technical training to be a Security Forces Airman, and that would mean weeks more of tests. Velez was again offered an easy way out – to go home and leave the Service.
“I didn’t agree with him and wasn’t ready to quit on my dream,” Velez said. “Being considered an underdog is not new to me, so I embraced once again the challenge and decided to prove him wrong. I told him, ‘I’ll see you back here in 11 weeks with my diploma, and I’ll show you that I am Air Force material.”
Velez used his determination to pass the tests of technical training, and to pass promotion tests. Along the way, he gathered rank, but often felt like the odd guy out, fighting to prove himself. “I have a very strong accent, and during my first years in the Air Force some people I worked with would think I had a mental disability, because instead of asking me about my background it was easier to judge from the outside based on the way I spoke” he said. “I felt bad about it, but I was able to learn a priceless lesson in life, whenever I get to be on the other side I would never judge a book by its cover.”
In 2013, Velez saw an announcement for LEAP on the Air Force Portal. “It was like everything just made sense after all these year,” he said. “I had always wanted a way to share what I knew, and to give back to the Air Force, but I didn’t know how. And then, here was this program that would use my skills. I knew it was what I wanted to do and the perfect way to prove my value in the AF.”
By this time, Velez wasn’t only fluent in Spanish. He’d used his unorthodox language training methods to gain a working-level fluency in Italian, too. He was accepted in to the program, and since joining, has been on multiple missions to support U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy forces, including a cultural immersion program in Colombia, as well as an assignment assisting in recovering the remains of World War II veterans off the coast of Grado, Italy.
“Many people retire from the military without ever discovering their strengths and potential, few others find what separates them from everyone else early in their careers,” Velez said. “It took me about 13 years to turn what I considered my biggest weakness in to my strength and vocation, and I want to use it to help others. I know there are a lot of other people like me out there, who feel they are alone, who are struggling because they may think that they are not good enough. I want to help them see that what they think is holding them back could be their greatest strength, too.”
The AFCLC recently completed selections for the 2017 LEAP application cycle. Applications will be accepted and reviewed again in 2018. For more information on LEAP or the AFCLC, see http://culture.af.mil, e-mail email@example.com or call 334-953-7729.