Strong roots sprout Outstanding Airman of the Year
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Each year, 12 outstanding enlisted people are chosen throughout the Air Force for their leadership, job performance, community involvement and personal achievements.
Senior Master Sgt. Emilio Hernandez, stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, is one of those Airmen. In 2012, he was named as one of the Air Force 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.
Hernandez, the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron Operations Flight superintendent, leads a team of engineers responsible for maintaining the entire base.
"We do everything from toilets to airfield, so you could imagine everything in between that requires maintenance and repair -- we do it all," Hernandez said. "We maintain every facility on base, the airfield, the lighting systems, the power systems, the heating ventilation and air conditioning systems, to include the aircraft arresting barriers on the airfield in case of an emergency for fighter aircraft."
Eight career fields fall under the operations flight: water fuel maintenance, electricians, power production, HVAC, dirt boys, structures, pest management and controllers. Hernandez is used to leading such a large group of Airmen, since he also served as the operations flight superintendent at Mildenhall Royal Air Base, England, and Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
Hernandez said his recognition isn't about what he did individually; it was the opportunities presented to him and the people he was privileged to lead and serve with.
"I don't think there has been a difference in what I did this year, because the teams I have always been involved with - engineers - have always been impressive," the Hialeah, Flo., native said. "I surround myself with good people and because of it, great things happen, not only to me, but my team. It has been that way throughout my career."
Hernandez, who won for his wing while stationed at Mildenhall and later won as the 2012 Senior NCO for United States Air Forces in Europe, said the thought of being one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year never crossed his mind.
"It was an honor to represent so many people -- USAFE being 49,000 strong, but to be one of the 12 chosen out of the entire Air Force, it is beyond words," he said. "There are a lot of people in the Air Force, the best Americans you can find, and that includes anyone in the service. It is just so humbling to be selected."
Hernandez added that any one of the more than 300,000 Airmen in the Air Force have what it takes to be one of the 12, he just happened to be chosen.
"I'm a CE guy, toilets to airfields, and I am one of the 12; everyone has an equal chance," he said. "You don't have to be doing miracle work, you need to be doing your job and taking the opportunities to deploy and to make a difference where and when you can."
He also said he is proud to be a representative of the Air Force and is excited to, "share what we do, what we bring to the fight and what caliber of people we have."
As an Outstanding Airmen of the Year, Hernandez, along with the other 11 Airmen, is on the Air Force Enlisted Council and met with the chief master sergeant of the Air Force to discuss issues and concerns of the whole enlisted force.
"The most important part of being an Airman of the Year is the ability to make a difference on the enlisted council," Hernandez said. "After sitting down and speaking with Chief Cody, I have a great feeling that our leadership is really aware of what is going on with our enlisted force. Chief Cody a great guy and a great leader and I believe he is going to tackle some of the issues brought up head-on."
Hernandez personally brought up the feedback system and how supervisors throughout the Air Force should work on accurately documenting and defining their subordinate's job performance.
"Near-and-dear to my heart is the enlisted feedback system. I feel like that is the most important part of our enlisted structure and also the most neglected," he said. "We just don't do a good enough job as supervisors to develop our folks and accurately put them on paper. Our feedback and our enlisted performance reports need to reflect the same idea, and our Airmen deserve that."
Showing similar passion during his most recent deployment led Hernandez to be chosen as one of the 12.
Hernandez, who has been on countless deployments throughout his career, recently traveled to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, for seven months as part of the 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineer Group, 777th Prime BEEF Squadron.
"A prime beef unit is a civil engineer unit that deploys and opens an airfield, sets up tent city and repairs and maintains the base from there-on," Hernandez said. "It comprises of all light construction."
Hernandez led 52 people in 53 civil engineer projects at 163 forward operating bases in support of 85,000 warfighters. He orchestrated $80,000 in repairs to nine Marine Corps aircraft hangars to safeguard $300 million in assets in support of a vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. He also oversaw a project to upgrade an electrical grid on a dam, that preserved water and power flow to 450,000 Afghans, and managed the construction of two tactical operations centers worth $500,000, securing Afghanistan's key district of Panjwai.
Throughout every project safety came first for Hernandez, not only for himself, but for his teams. He said he ensured all recon was done and intelligence reports were read before he sent his people on a mission.
"I didn't want to send them somewhere they might get hurt," Hernandez said. "Obviously the risks are higher in Afghanistan, but seeing your whole team come back with a finished product was always so rewarding."
He worked in a joint environment, working side-by-side with Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, while his unit was under the 30th Naval Construction Regiment. Hernandez said his team also partnered with a Canadian engineer team who flew to forward operating bases and worked with Afghan soldiers.
"We taught the Afghans how to maintain electrical systems, because it was a big issue throughout the country," Hernandez said. "We would train them on how to properly install electrical systems, because often times we would find wires running everywhere with no regard for safety. We helped rectify the situation."
Also while in Kandahar, Hernandez and his team trained the first Afghan Air Wing on how to operate and wire generators, and maintain electrical systems.
"It was a difficult task considering that many of the Afghans are illiterate," Hernandez added. "The electrical work requires a lot of reading and diagrams, so we would educate them as best as possible. We had a great training outline that was very picture and hands-on oriented."
Afghanistan is currently building a valid armed force for security to protect their country, according to Hernandez, and his team was assisting them in meeting their goal.
"We knew how important their task was to the overall goal," he said. "We knew that teaching these guys how to provide emergency power to facilities, especially those that might generate sorties or directly affect the mission, would make a huge difference in the big picture of building a solid force for Afghanistan."
Hernandez worked with local military while in Iraq and El Salvador, so this wasn't his first experience working alongside foreign military members. He said he also built a school once in the Philippines with the help of the Philippine Navy Seabees. The school children had to walk at least 10 miles to the nearest school until Hernandez's team built a new school 500 meters away from the village.
Throughout his two decades of service and multiple deployments, Hernandez said his most memorable moments are of watching junior Airmen tackle jobs -- how they handled them and grew from their experiences.
"Some of us older guys, we know what we are doing. We kind of know what the outcome will be," the senior master sergeant said. "But with young people, sometimes you sit back and let them do things and what they achieve is so much more than you expected of them. It kind of puts you in awe."
He said he was always amazed when traveling to forward operating bases and witnessing his teams' accomplishments.
"Under incredible conditions -- the worst you can imagine, I was always amazed at what my guys could do when they are motivated, have the people, equipment and resources and know the importance of their mission," Hernandez added. "That is really what fires me up. Seeing other guys excel at what they do and watching the young Airmen really get into it."
Hernandez said being deployed is a very challenging yet rewarding experience, because the work tempo is much faster, but service members see the impact of their work almost immediately.
"Your team stays motivated because they see the fruits of their labor," Hernandez said. "They can say 'wow' look at what we just built and now someone else is running missions out of it. It could be a medical facility and now lives are being saved in a facility you just built 30 days ago."
Hernandez said he had an incredible team throughout his deployment.
"Leading those guys was easy," he added. "They knew what they were doing."
No matter the caliber of team, deployments can be rough on the individual and their family back home, but Hernandez said he knew what he signed up for, and because of his roots, he found strength to prosper throughout his time in Afghanistan.
Air Force Career
Hernandez came from humble beginnings and was born into a communist regime in Cuba.
"I experienced communism a little myself, but mostly from my parents stories I learned what it does to its people, to their soul and to their livelihood," Hernandez said. "I was privileged to leave by the time I was 8 and grow up in the U.S."
After leaving Cuba, Hernandez's family moved to Miama, Fla., where he was raised until graduating high school. Upon graduation, he married his high school sweetheart and three days later joined the Air Force.
Since joining, Hernandez was stationed in Michigan, Colorado, Turkey, South Carolina, Misawa Air Base, Japan, Mildenhall Royal Air Base, United Kingdom, and finally Japan again at Yokota. He has also been on several deployments throughout the world.
"I have had wonderful assignments and met wonderful people," he said. "I've never picked anywhere I wanted to go, but I have always ended up with good assignments. It doesn't matter where I go as long as I know my family will be with me and I'll be working with engineers."
Being married since he joined the military, Hernandez has a 19-year old daughter and a 15-year old son.
"I am grateful for the opportunities the Air Force has given my family and still continues to give. I have two kids now and I serve for them also," he said.
Hernandez said he joined because something his father once said. It compelled him to find a way to represent his family and give back.
"My dad was the most patriotic guy I've ever known. He always told me that we have to value freedom," Hernandez said. "We serve, and in my mind that is the best way to give back to your nation. Service can mean a lot of things, whether community service, military service or somehow giving back."
Since taking the message with him through life and after 21 years of service in the Air Force, Hernandez has also been selected for promotion to the rank of chief master sergeant.
"It is a long time, but it seems so short to me because it has flown by so quickly. That's what happens when you are having fun, time goes by quickly," Hernandez said. "I am excited and pumped up to be a chief, and I'm looking forward to taking care of my people. The most important thing is taking care of the people here at my squadron."