Bioenvironmental engineer speaks out on officer corps diversity, increases Air Force recruiting opportunities for Puerto Rico

  • Published
  • By 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs Staff
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

While their tropical island homes may be hard to leave, for many Americans on U.S. territory islands such as Guam and Puerto Rico, the call to service is strong. The opportunity to join military service, however, may not be as easily available for some.

For Air Force hopefuls in Puerto Rico, there are now more opportunities to excel, thanks to a Whiteman AFB engineer.

Inspired by his own experience of the recruiting process, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Nephtali Castillo, 509th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron bioenvironmental engineer and Puerto Rican native, has devoted much of his short time in the Air Force to supporting Latino American inclusion and encouraging recruiting on his home island.

Castillo attended the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, where he received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. At that time, there were no commissioning recruiters available in Puerto Rico to allow qualified applicants entry to the service’s officer corps.

Castillo did not let administrative hurdles discourage him from his ambition of leading Airmen. Instead of heading for a commissioning program, he began his Air Force career in a civilian position as an electronics engineer at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, in 2016. While there, he continued his education, graduating from Mercer University with a Master of Business Administration degree.

With this detour, Castillo was then finally able to earn a direct commission into the service based on his qualifications as an engineer. In 2019, he attended Commissioned Officer Training (COT) – a 23-day program in Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, that trains qualified professionals; such as chaplains, medical staff and engineers on the basics of military leadership and life.

He arrived at Whiteman AFB after graduating COT in July 2019 and was assigned to the 509th OMRS. While his career is now fully on track the way Castillo had originally envisioned, he knew that other highly qualified students like him would consider a career in the Air Force if given the opportunity. He wanted to pave a new path for them that would avoid the difficulties he had circumnavigated.

In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Castillo received his chance to do just that when the Defense Department’s senior leader, then-Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper visited Whiteman AFB. During a so-called sensing session with base leaders, Castillo took the opportunity to address the shortage of minority representation in the officer corps across all services to the secretary.

Castillo was persuasive and his case so compelling that Esper took immediate action about the concern presented, which led to follow-on coordination between Castillo and the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramón Colón-López. By August, within weeks of the first briefing to the SecDef, Castillo’s work with Air Force senior leaders resulted in an all-new position for a commissioned officer recruiter on Puerto Rico. For the first time, qualified Air Force recruits could now apply for the commissioning process right on the island and without delay.

“I am passionate about helping the Latino American Community because there are many people there that are highly educated and talented that can contribute and help to improve the Air Force,” Castillo said. “I’m very certain that they will be a great asset to the AF, as they are bilingual and many are already educated professionals. Puerto Ricans are determined to progress professionally and are always looking for ways to improve a process and make it better.”

Always driven, Castillo only saw this first success as a motivation for more. By February 2021, he pioneered a method for the 156th Airlift Wing’s Puerto Rico Air National Guard recruiter to complete the recruitment process faster in-spite of coronavirus limitations, by allowing multiple prospective guardsmen to complete the oath of enlistment at the same time through video conferencing – from anywhere with an internet connection. This innovation reduced the recruitment process time from 90 to 15 minutes per recruit -- an 83% decrease.

“I feel very privileged to have a critical role in this movement toward diversity in the Air Force,” Castillo said. ”Knowing I was able to speak up and have my voice heard to help others in need has been a humbling experience and makes me so incredibly happy. It is a blessing to be part of this initiative to improve diversity in the military and to work with some of our most senior military leaders.”

Castillo himself presided over the virtual oath of enlistment to several fellow islanders and hopes the new process will enable the local office to enlist 40 new trainees from Puerto Rico each year. By improving diversity, Castillo said he hopes the DoD can increase inclusivity and bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the force.

While Castillo has already received awards for his work at Whiteman AFB’s 509th OMRS, the real reward in accelerating change across the force is in helping others like him succeed, he said.

“My parents have always instilled in me the importance of service before self and to help those less fortunate,” the young lieutenant said. “They have always taught me to do the right thing for others and never to expect to get something in return when you help someone.

“Anything you do in your life; do it from the bottom of your heart. Do it out of kindness. Do it, because you want to see others succeed,” he continued. “Do not be afraid to speak up when you have an idea or you see something that can be improved.”