TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — Every service member must complete some form of basic training before they enter the military.
Many find it a stressful, grueling time when they learn to operate on little sleep and be part of a team of people with varying personalities.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘This is great. I hope they keep me here,’ when I was in boot camp,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ericka Kelly, 349th Air Mobility Wing command chief. “Basic training was actually peaceful compared to where I came from. We had food, a place to sleep and great people.”
The oldest of three children, Kelly, who recently joined the fight at Travis Air Force Base, came from humble beginnings in Guatemala. With her family poor, she was no stranger to dirt floors, a lack of electricity and running water and wearing the same clothes for days at a time.
Kelly said her mother was young and desperately wanted to make a new start in the United States, but couldn’t afford to have the rest of her family find out because they would try to stop her. Her mother locked her and her siblings in a room and fled to America alone.
“I was only 5 at the time,” Kelly said. “She left us some eggs and water. I didn’t know how to cook eggs, but I had seen the adults do it enough times to figure it out.”
The children were in the room for five days before their grandmother routinely came to check on them. But she did not find them.
“ ‘Grandma we’re in here,’ I yelled, but she didn’t hear me,” Kelly said. “She left without finding us and I lost all hope. The reality hit me that we would all die together in that room.”
Another two days passed and the grandmother returned with multiple relatives and found them.
Kelly lived with her grandmother until she was 12 and a massive earthquake in her area made international news. Her mother had already married and had a daughter in America when she saw the devastation on television and decided to return to check on her family.
“My mother saw the conditions her children were living in and decided she would take us back to America with her,” Kelly said. “Her husband had no idea she even had kids.”
After a stint in Compton in Southern California, they wound up in Las Vegas. Kelly said life was “dysfunctional.” She was cleaning hotel rooms at age 13. By 10th grade, she dropped out of high school to work full time.
Later, Kelly moved in with a family she met through work, went back to school and doubled up on night courses so she could graduate on time.
“Thank God for good teachers and friends who didn’t force me to go to school, but pointed out to me that there was a better road to take with education,” she said. “I had other options in life.”
After seeing a commercial for the Air Force Reserve, she decided what she wanted to do in life.
“ ‘That’s it. That’s for me,’ I said to myself,” she said.
The ‘weird airman’
Kelly always knew she wanted to wear the uniform of a United States service member and looked into the Marine Corps thoroughly. However, as the time to enlist drew closer, she realized the Air Force was right for her.
“I was a weird airman,” she said. “I was excited to do every detail I was assigned and always gave 100 percent. I always had a great attitude and that helped my leadership see the potential in me.”
Her dedication to the Air Force was tested early in her career when she was a ground medic stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. She was pursuing her degree in criminal justice in Las Vegas and had to drive five-and-a-half hours each month to Luke to do her Reserve time, all while working full time in a doctor’s office to pay the bills.
She later changed her job to air evacuation and moved to March Air Reserve Base in California. She then deployed to Somalia.
“It was an extremely difficult deployment,” she said. “I did a lot of work with Marine intelligence and Army (explosive ordnance disposal). Looking back, it was dangerous.”
Even though Somalia was tough, Kelly learned a lot about the unity of teamwork and trusting in her leadership. She missed out on an important opportunity, however.
Kelly had always wanted to be a special agent in the Drug Enforcement Agency, but the phone call came while she was deployed and she could not take the opportunity, so her Air Force career marched on. Instead, she went on multiple deployments around the world while constantly learning and progressing her Air Force career.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a command chief,” she said. “While every deployment I was on was different, I learned from all of them. They helped me see the big picture while learning to accept and adapt to change.”
Eventually, Kelly was promoted to her current rank, chief master sergeant, and became the highest-ranking enlisted reservist at Travis as command chief of the 349th Air Mobility Wing. Kelly said it takes the traits of a mentor, adviser and professional to represent the wing and Air Force, all things she learned in her civilian life.
While she was at March, she worked as an immigration inspector at the Immigration and Naturalization Service at Los Angeles International Airport.
After attending the Law Enforcement Academy, Kelly finally received and opportunity for a position she wanted within the INS, becoming a special agent.
Taking a new role
Kelly spent a lot of time undercover while working as a special agent with the INS.
“My Latin culture, language skills and gender allowed me to take part in a lot of task forces,” she said.
Kelly worked many fraud cases against fake attorneys who would lie to illegal immigrants about providing them with fake documentation, while taking all their money. She also worked many gang cases and task forces with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency concerning antiterrorism, human trafficking and smuggling.
Even though being a special agent and working undercover sting operations may sound like it doesn’t have much to do with an aeromedical evacuation position in the Air Force Reserve, Kelly said the two careers actually run parallel to one another.
“Whenever someone is hurt or knocked off balance, they all react the same as human emotions take over,” Kelly said. “Sometimes a situation can be de-escalated by simply just being human. The world is not all bad guys.”
She was later chosen for a position in the Internal Affairs Division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security, a job she says is strikingly similar to being a command chief master sergeant in the Air Force.
“It’s a very unique position,” Kelly said. “I am responsible for investigating the conduct of the officers and enforcing the core values of DHS, the same way a chief enforces the core values of the Air Force.”
While performing both duties in her civilian and Reserve careers, she has learned that sometimes life just deals people a bad hand. How they adapt and transform to the next one is what makes them who they are.
Such is the case with Kelly herself and her journey from Guatemala to the U.S. The mother who left her as a girl has since had multiple strokes, is paralyzed, lives with Kelly and receives care from her.
As for her siblings who shared her same fate, locked in that room so many years ago, the youngest lives with her and helps care for their mother. She calls him “Angel.”
The middle brother has not been seen for 30 years. He left home shortly after Kelly did and, according to her, is thought of have fallen into a world of drugs, jail, homelessness and suffering.
Her stepfather died and her half-sister is a housewife in Las Vegas with three children.
Patrick Harrower is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who is stationed at Travis Air Force Base in the Public Affairs Office.