Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Then-Tech. Sgt. Jose Melendez re-enlists in the U.S. Air Force during a 2008 ceremony. Now-1st Lt. Melendez encourages Hispanics to be proud of their heritage. (Contributed photo/Released)

Then-Tech. Sgt. Jose Melendez re-enlists in the U.S. Air Force during a 2008 ceremony. Now-1st Lt. Melendez encourages Hispanics to be proud of their heritage. (Contributed photo/Released)

U.S Air Force 1st Lt. Jose Melendez, 509th Operation Support Squadron wing weather officer, examines weather radar readouts, Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., March 20, 2013. In light of Hispanic Heritage Month, Melendez said Hispanics should be proud and never forget the importance of their contributions to the Air Force and nation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keenan Berry/Released)

U.S Air Force 1st Lt. Jose Melendez, 509th Operation Support Squadron wing weather officer, examines weather radar readouts, Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., March 20, 2013. In light of Hispanic Heritage Month, Melendez said Hispanics should be proud and never forget the importance of their contributions to the Air Force and nation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keenan Berry/Released)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- It's been almost 13 years since I joined the Air Force. To this day, I can still remember sitting at the Military Entrance Processing Station in San Juan, Puerto Rico, waiting to be taken to the airport.

Little did I know that my six-year plan would turn into one of the best decisions I've ever made. See, I first joined the Air Force because of the education benefits; never did I think I would grow to love the military lifestyle.

I joined in 2001 as a weather forecaster, and by 2007, I had cross-trained into medical maintenance. The first few years I devoted to knowing my job and the Air Force lifestyle. Afterward, I set out to fulfill my initial plan to finish school. By the time I was a technical sergeant, I was able to finish two Community College of the Air Force degrees, a bachelor of arts and an MBA.

It took lots of sacrifice and sleepless nights, and the support of my wife, daughter and coworkers, but by my 10-year mark, I earned my commission and came back to the weather career field.

Now why is this important? Well, as a Hispanic I have faced many of the challenges others also have. My dad did not finish high school and received his GED in order to become a police officer, a position he served in for 30 years.

My parents separated when I was young, and my mother, brother and I moved to New York when I was 9. At first we lived in the projects for a few years and my mom required government assistance until she was able to acquire a steady job. Having been born in Puerto Rico, learning English and a new culture was a challenge for my brother and me. There were many hardships we had to overcome and new things to learn.

Once I graduated high school, I had no idea of what to do in life. One day I walked up to a local university and decided to visit the admissions office.

This was a new world for me. My parents had never encouraged me to go to college. It wasn't something that they were familiar with. However, I saw most of my friends doing this after high school and gave it a shot. It all went well until I ran out of money. And then the Air Force became a major part of life.

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, I am proud of my roots and thankful for the opportunities the Air Force has provided. I always tell others that you can get as far as you want in the Air Force. All it takes is hard work and determination.

In the Air Force, your race and color don't matter; I am proof of that. Diversity has been key to the development of our great nation and I believe this is also key to the greatness of our Air Force.

During this month I ask Hispanics to be proud of their heritage and to never forget the importance of their contribution to our Air Force and service to our nation.