February 15, 2013

Being a survivor, a life lesson

by Staff Sgt. Joe Davidson
452 AMW public affairs
Chief Kelly
Command Chief Master Sgt. Ericka Kelly shown reminiscing about the events that made her the person she is today. The “Mission” photo, which is proudly displayed on her office wall, is a constant reminder of her devotion to duty, family and to the men and women of the 452d Air Mobility Wing Total Force. (U.S. Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Joe Davidson)

The line in the Airman’s Creed that reads, “I will never leave an Airman behind,” should have meaning for every Airman. In fact, this line has a very special meaning for the 452d Air Mobility Wing Command Chief Master Sergeant, Ericka Kelly. It prompts her to remember a time when living in a very poor area of Guatemala City, Guatemala, at the age of five, accompanied by her two younger brothers, while locked in a room without food and very little water.

Kelly took time out of her busy day to talk about her life and provide candid comments about events that brought her to where she is today.

“During that horrible time of my life, I had the feelings of being a survivor,” says Kelly. “I did whatever I had to do, to always be ready for the worst case scenario. For me, when I read the Airman’s Creed, the line that jumps out is, ‘I will never leave an Airman behind.’ This line takes me back to that locked room. I knew that I could escape my situation because I was the oldest and had better capabilities, but I could not bear to leave my two younger brothers behind — that is why that line in the Airman’s Creed is extremely important. It is not because it sounds good, but it evokes courage  and inspiration, feelings I have carried in me forever. It’s what makes me, it’s my foundation and it is how I stay grounded.”

Early in childhood, Kelly’s mother made a difficult decision to leave her and her two younger brothers behind, to search for a better life in the U.S. In their home, she locked them in a dark room for what seemed like an eternity, with little to no sustenance.

Kelly realized she had to grow up quickly and take charge of their situation because she knew it was her responsibility to ensure her brothers’ survival. She continually reassured her brothers that someone would come to their aid and after five days, her prayers were answered when their grandmother decided to visit the house to investigate why she had not seen them in awhile. When the knock came at the door, Kelly began screaming frantically, but to no avail — her grandmother did not hear her cries for help and was unable to break through the lock, so she left.

Not giving up on her grandchildren, grandma returned to the house, but this time with help. They were able to pry open the door and rescue the children; after which, their grandmother took sole responsibility for their welfare. It was then Kelly realized that her and her brothers would never separate and they were either going to make it together or die together.

Living with their grandma was not easy. The small family lived in a shack with dirt floors and no water or electricity.

When Kelly was 12, an earthquake demolished their meager home, so they had to rely on U.S. agencies such as the Red Cross, to bring them supplies. Soon after that, her mother returned to Guatemala and took her and her siblings to the States.

Initially, Kelly did not respond to her mother’s decision to take them to the U.S., because she had no knowledge of where or what it was like to live there. Also, to Kelly, her mother was a stranger and she could not bear the thought of leaving her grandmother, whom had rescued her from a life of certain doom. She eventually gave in and they all traveled to the U.S.

Kelly suffered from severe culture shock when she arrived in the States. Her family lived in a small house, with indoor plumbing, in Compton, Calif. — the mention of plumbing is because they did not have that in Guatemala. They were exposed to a new way of life, polluted by the violence of the city. They lived there for about a year then moved to Las Vegas, where she was able to finish high school. Changes in life caused her to be on her own when she was 16 and at 17, she considered joining the Marine Corps, but instead, continued to work and attend school full time.  Kelly went on to graduate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In 1987, Kelly saw an advertisement for the Air Force and decided to enlist in the Reserve.  After basic military training at then, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, followed by Medical Service Specialist technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, she received orders to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. She was assigned to the 944th Aeromedical Staging Squadron.

Subsequent assignments took her to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., deployments in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.

Chief Kelly will be the first to say that she has had help in getting to where she is today.

“I did not do it alone. With the help of friends and people that saw potential in me, I became a Command Chief Master Sergeant and a Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security,” says Chief Kelly. “I am here today because my grandma never gave up and she rescued us from abandonment. I am here today because my mother realized that Compton was not a healthy city for our family and moved us to where we would be safe. I am here today because friends, mentors and teachers in Las Vegas helped me grow up and develop into something they saw in me. I could not let them down. My part was to continue with that internal drive to succeed in their honor.”

Chief Kelly took over as Command Chief Master Sgt. from retired Chief Augustin Huerta in Nov. 2010. In this position, she serves as the spokesperson and liaison between the enlisted force here at March Air Reserve Base and the Wing Commander. She outlined three points:

1) I have learned that it is a tremendous honor to serve as Command Chief. I knew it was when I first got the job, but now it is in my heart. It is a remarkable privilege to have the voice of the enlisted force — it is a great responsibility. I assure you that our leadership, Cols. Mahaney and Finney, along with the group commanders’, primary focus is to take care of our Airmen. In addition, the partnership I have with the Chiefs and First Sergeants allows me to connect and stay grounded with our members.  Their goal, my goal, is to take care of the Airmen. The philosophy of Col. Mahaney is to take of your people so they can take care of the mission.

2) Feedback! I need to get away from this office and meet as many people as I can, to get their feedback on what is working and what is not. I need to find out how we can fix things so I can continue to be that voice.

3) Provide a culture of excellence. That culture of ownership and pride, taking care of the mission, we become stronger. We know that the product we are giving the Air Force and our commander is excellence. Then, we close that loop when it comes to our core values.

Chief Kelly chose a career in law enforcement to give her the strength and competence to take care of herself and to take care of others. Executing her duties allowed her to be a part of a bigger family, where right prevails and wrong is dealt with accordingly.

According to Chief Kelly, similar ideologies that apply in law enforcement, can also be applied to the military. Taking care of your people is always number one. She knew that as a young Airman, people with wisdom, experience and knowledge would guide her on a path to success and to the life she now leads.

When life events become stressful and out of control, seek out someone that will take the time to listen. You can go to your supervisor, first sergeant, commander, or even consider talking to Chief Kelly.

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