By: Brigadier General Ricardo "Rico" Aponte
US Air Force (Retired)
Good day everyone,
First a stanza of a poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer- Spanish Poet: Un Poema de Esperanza
con sombra vana,
delante del deseo
va la esperanza.
Casting a waining shadow,
Before your desires.
Ahead leads - hope
Esperanza Burguet Quesada was born in Bayamo, Cuba in 1883, the daughter of a Spanish military family that later moved to Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 1890’s. Commander Burguet held the post of Customs Officer at the port there. Of course we all know that in 1898 the United States invaded both Puerto Rico and Cuba as part of the Spanish-American War. After the war, Esperanza’s parents returned to Spain leaving behind in Puerto Rico Esperanza and five brothers and sisters. You see, Esperanza had married at a tender age another immigrant, Don Julio Blasini, a Corsican that came to the island in the middle of the 19th century.
That ladies and gentlemen is the story of part of my family. The story of many families that named their daughters Esperanza. A hope that in the new world they would find happiness, free from European pandemics and wars, and destined to find a bounty of opportunities.
Now all of us are born with that proverbial fire in our belly, the need to reach a level of accomplishment that satisfies your most ardent desires. I for one dreamt that I could play right field for the Pittsburg Pirates and throw people out like my boyhood hero – Roberto Clemente. Yet that did not come to pass and eventually I moved on - determined to get a good education and make something of my life.
I was fortunate, my parents could afford a private school education. It was during this stage in life, mentored by Brother Joseph Everhart, that my dreams literally took flight. In seven short years I graduated from high school and college, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
With the Vietnam War winding down in 1972 and after my graduation as a Civil Engineer the pace of pilot training in the Air Force had slowed down. It was not until 1973 that I attended pilot training at Moody AFB in Georgia and graduated a year later. Finally I flew modern aircraft that I dreamed of flying. I still remember fondly that first solo flight in the supersonic T-38 as the airplane passed 100 knots on takeoff, when I told myself – “Rico, what the hell are you doing here?”
Throughout the year the personnel leading the course and my assigned instructors were very supportive of the learning program. In the end, I was assigned to my first choice of airplane, the supersonic fighter-bomber known by the Vietnamese as “whispering death”, the F-111 stationed at Cannon AFB in new Mexico.
I arrived at Cannon on August 8, 1974 and was assigned to the 523rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Crusaders. I found out soon enough that my F-111 training would be delayed until the following year and I assumed duties in the Ground Training section of the squadron. While waiting for training, I attended the Fighter Lead-in Course that Tactical Air Command gave new fighter pilots at Holloman AFB, NM. This training was a rigorous introduction into tactics, bombing, and air-to-air combat which I enjoyed tremendously. That was the last time I attended a required career development course while on active duty. As you will see later in my narrative this fact played a major part in my lack of career success while serving the Nation.
After a vacation I took in late September of 1975 I returned to the squadron to find out that my additional duty as Ground Training Officer was given to a junior pilot and my new job was snack bar officer, otherwise called pejoratively “CINC Snack.” This “water boy” job is traditionally given to the junior officer in the squadron which I was not. I remained in the demeaning additional duty assignment until I left the squadron for aircraft commander training in February 1977, almost 1 ½ years on the job. Another slight that happened while at the 523rd was related to professional training. I had received word that I would attend Squadron Officer School (SOS) at Maxwell AFB, a course designed for junior officers. However, my assigned slot was cancelled and given to a different officer in the squadron. I never attended SOS in residence after that. However, throughout the years assigned at the 523rd I remained excited to be flying a jet fighter and blind to the fact that I was the victim of discrimination.
I encountered my second period of successful career advancement when I reported to aircraft commander training in 1977. Finally I was the pilot in charge and mistakes, if any, were my responsibility. After uneventful training I reported upon graduation to a different squadron at Cannon AFB, the 522nd Fireballs. There I spent a year of duty, was received warmly by the squadron leadership, and was tasked with a demanding additional duty. The planning of the aircraft’s first overseas deployment to Bodo, Norway. I was finally in a job that used my management skills. As a result, I felt an admiration to the staff and the squadron that lasts to this day.
After four years in New Mexico I received an assignment to the United Kingdom and reported to RAF Lakenheath flying the F-111F aircraft. There again I was treated fairly and my career improved to the point that I quickly became flight lead qualified and was assigned to the training squadron as an instructor pilot. Even though my commanders and other leaders in the two squadrons I worked for the next three years were appreciative of my work and never ruled against my career expectations, three things stand out. At Lakenheath I was not selected again for Squadron Officers School or Fighter Weapons School, the second would open doors to be in command of a squadron in later years.
Two assignments later as I was approaching the fifteenth year in active duty I made the bold choice to leave active duty and join the Air Force Reserves. Sadly - many other Hispanics are forced to make similar decisions due to poor or non-existent mentoring, lack of professional education options, and limited assignments as unit commanders. That last one puts a nail in the coffin to your promotion opportunities. However, I was fortunate enough to have a reputation of a fierce politico-military staff officer and a bold international negotiator. That reputation landed an assignment to the Air Staff in the Pentagon as a Major. I left the building thirteen years later as a newly promoted Brigadier General with an active duty assignment as the Deputy Director of Operations at the United States Southern Command in Miami.
So I leave you today with a few pearls of wisdom. I first adopted a life motto during my Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) years. It was” Never Say Impossible” and it has guided me through 34 years of officership. It was always on my mind when flying difficult missions in fighter airplanes, it steered me when planning international events like the first Defense Ministerial of the Americas and two tours of the Air Force Thunderbirds to South America, and also when responding to international events during the Organization of the American States stabilization of the political situation in Haiti of 2004. But more importantly, never say impossible was first on my mind after witnessing the aircraft explosion on 9/11 in the Pentagon. Starting that day I spent more time on active duty as an officer than flying aircraft for United Airlines.
Lastly, I ask that you personally manage your career. If you are missing a good mentor, mentor yourself. Today, aided by technology, there are plenty of self-help activities. This includes academic courses you may take to improve management skills. If stuck on a position with no advancement possibilities, take the fork on the road that offers the best chance for success. Like Esperanza Blasini’s family did in the middle of the nineteenth century, take a chance, climb over obstacles, and solve problems without controversy - always using your diplomatic skills. That way you give hope (Esperanza) a chance.