An Airman’s Journey from Puerto Rico

By 60th Communications Squadron

Staff Sgt. Richard Rodriguez-Marquez grew up listening to the sound of jets.

Comm squadron

Now an airfield systems technician assigned to the 60th Communications Squadron, Rodriguez-Marquez lived close to Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station in his native Puerto Rico.

His next door neighbor was an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot and Rodriguez-Marquez remembers watching videos of the neighbor’s jet being refueled by KC-10 Extenders. His dreams of becoming a pilot faded while he was a college student, however, and he never thought he might one day be responsible for maintaining the systems pilots rely upon to take off and land safely.

Rodriguez-Marquez’s journey to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., reveals a pattern of overcoming obstacles and challenges. After studying physics and engineering at the University of Puerto Rico with a NASA internship at Lowell Observatory, Ariz., to study binary star systems along the way he began his post-collegiate career as a technician in a pharmaceutical plant. The economy was lagging at the time and he was concerned about layoffs, so he visited a local recruiting station.

There was just one catch. Despite studying English in school, Rodriguez-Marquez spoke little of it. The Navy recruiter offered to send him to school to improve his language skills and then compete for a commission, but his childhood memories of F-16s carried the day. Ignoring the advice of his friends, he enlisted in the Air Force.

Rodriguez-Marquez’s limited English capabilities caught up with him immediately upon reporting to basic training. He recalled an early episode when his military training instructor instructed him to place his satchel under his dining facility chair, only he didn’t understand the English word satchel, so he remained standing at attention until the MTI took it from him and demonstrated.

Later, during combat arms training, Rodriguez-Marquez misunderstood the proper use of the mnemonic for “slap, pull, observe, release, tap, squeeze.” When his weapon jammed, he raised his hand and yelled “sports!” thus earning the instant ire of a combat arms training and maintenance instructor whose surname was also Rodriguez. Looking back at the event now, he laughs a little.

“He told me I was a disgrace to his name,” said Rodriguez-Marquez with a laugh.

Eventually his MTI paired him with a fellow Spanish speaker who was bilingual. This newfound help, coupled with his sheer determination to memorize new English words from his Airman Training Order, enabled him to learn English as a basic trainee.

Rodriguez-Marquez readily admits that physical fitness was not an important part of his pre-Air Force life. Still, he was determined to meet Air Force standards. While running during his final PT test at basic training, he felt a sharp pain in his hip. Determined not to fail, he finished the test with a passing score, but had suffered a broken hip in the process.

Graduating on crutches, he was placed on awaiting further instructions status until he could heal, which meant another four months of life at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, fitting new recruits for shoes and boots. Having joined with an open enlistment, he had no guaranteed job.

He learned the week before leaving Lackland for Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., that he had been selected for the airfield systems career field.

Rodriguez-Marquez takes great pride in being the first member of an accomplished family to serve in the U.S. military. His mother is a math teacher, his father and brother are lawyers and his sister is an art student.

“The Air Force gave me the tools I need to succeed,” he said. “It’s up to me to utilize those tools.”

His positive attitude, which he credits with his employment of Comprehensive Airman Fitness is reflected in his on- and off-duty pursuits. Rodriguez-Marquez remains fit in the physical domain by finding and performing exercises that improve his leg strength and flexibility.

After reinjuring his hip during a squadron physical training run at Peña Adobe Park in Vacaville, he began working out with Airman 1st Class Sony “Hi-Def” Luangphone, a fellow airfield systems technician. Luangphone introduced him to exercises that worked different leg muscles in different ways and now Rodriguez-Marquez has much less difficulty running.

“I want to lead by example,” Rodriguez-Marquez said. “If I can do it, (the Airmen in his shop) can do it.”

Similarly, Rodriguez-Marquez seeks balance in the remaining three CAF domains. In the spiritual domain, he translates sermons at his church from English into Spanish for the benefit of the predominantly Hispanic congregation. He’s also pursuing a master’s degree in theology.

In the social realm, he revels in the diversity he finds within Travis and the camaraderie of other non-native English-speaking Airmen.

“I know they’re dedicated,” he said. “I place trust in them because they also had to overcome adversity to get where they are.”

In the mental domain, he continues focusing on his studies and his language skills.

“My goal is to speak English with no accent,” he said with a smile.

Rodriguez-Marquez credits his wife, Denisse, for helping him stay grounded and well-balanced. The two first met in her native Mexico, where he was a visiting music student during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college.

They kept in touch after he returned home and renewed their courtship when her music studies later took her to Puerto Rico. A sheepish grin crosses his face as he relates the story and he admits, “Her English is better than mine.”

One might think having such impressive academic credentials and overcoming so many obstacles might give Rodriguez-Marquez an inflated ego. Despite mentoring the Air Force’s Airfield Systems Airman of the Year for 2013, Airman 1st Class David Holliman, and helping his Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems work center win the 60th MSG’s Team of the Year Award for 2013, he is quick to give the credit to his co-workers.

“I was older than my MTI in basic training,” he said. “I had to learn to be humble and to use the tools the Air Force gave me. I’m happy.”

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Richard Rodriguez-Marquez, 60th Communications Squadron airfield systems technician, examines a circuit board April 23, 2014, at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Carranza)