EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska –
Master Sgt. Lisa Espinoza could not have imagined the situations, opportunities, places she would travel and people her career would bring to her life when she joined the United States Air Force twenty years ago. Espinoza currently serves in the 168th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard and will soon retire.
“First week of technical school in the Air Force after graduating basic training, we didn’t have a class starting, and we were all in the day room when we heard what had happened," said Espinoza. “Sept. 11th had happened.”
Espinoza started her military career as a medical technician attending school at the Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
“I actually came in the Air Force with open general hoping for medical,” said Espinoza. “At basic, they give you your Air Force Specialty Code, your specific job, and the class before us — all their open general got Security Forces.”
My first thoughts were 'I don’t know about Security Forces' – I ended up marrying a Security Forces guy.
“My decision to join with open general ended up working out, and I became a medical technician. This is what I was hoping for,” said Espinoza. “Now, people tell you to make sure you go in with a set job. I didn’t have anyone to tell me when I enlisted. I had a couple of cousins in the military, and they were way older and already serving."
Espinoza’s first duty assignment was the hospital at Barksdale Air Force Base, LA, where she met her husband.
After serving five years there, she received orders to Royal Air Force Menwith Hill in England, continuing her career as a medical technician. She served as one of two 4Ns at a geographically separated unit. This is where she started her immunization training.
From England, she was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base. In 2013 at Eielson AFB, she received her SEI for allergy immunizations as a specialty. She served with the active-duty medical until 2015, when she decided to palace front into the Alaska Air National Guard.
She had served in active duty and transferred to the National Guard as Commander’s Support Staff at the end of her tour.
“The decision to go Guard was probably one of the most stressful decisions,” said Espinoza. “In the active duty, you don’t really hear about the Guard. A sergeant I worked with crossed over, and I really started talking to her about it.”
Espinoza said it was never an option, consideration, or second thought until the last couple of years. "I was on active duty, so it was hard, but with a lot of changes, it was very much needed," she said.
“Joining the Guard was probably one of the best decisions besides joining the military that I’ve made for my career,” said Espinoza.
In the beginning, she was a drill status guardsman and, soon after, she applied to be a full-time active guard and reserve member.
“Talk about having to learn everything all over again,” said Espinoza. “I was not only changing career fields and people – the Guard — what the heck is going on — You mean to tell me there are different statuses you can be on.”
Espinoza remembered this time in her career and said, “It was exciting learning something new and revamping yourself. The people in maintenance made it super easy, and they were really understanding and helped me learn.”
Espinoza served in the 168th Maintenance Group until 2020, when she became the CSS for the 168th Wing headquarters.
Once starting at the wing, her career broadened again. “I felt a little more connected to the mission being maintenance than at the 168th Wing, but at the Wing I was able to see the bigger picture,” said Espinoza. "You get to know the leadership as people instead of just someone who works at headquarters. It’s nice. You get to see the perspective on decisions and why things are done the way there are.”
As she reflected on her career, people were at the forefront of her thoughts. “Twenty years have gone by so quickly; of course, there are things you would change, but I have met so many wonderful people.”
“Being in the military and away from your family, these people are your family,” said Espinoza. “Any base you go to, you are always going to have that bond and that connection. Everyone is in a similar situation. You don’t really know what the military goes through unless you are in the military. Regardless of who you meet or branch of service, you know you hold a connection with them because they have gone through experiences and stuff you have gone through that you don’t necessarily have with someone who is a civilian.”
Espinoza said, “That’s going to be the hard part not having that connection and that bond with people every day, but I’m excited about the next chapter.”
Espinoza will soon retire after serving for twenty years. She was the first and only woman in her family to join the military.
“I don’t think my family truly understands or knows what I do essentially,” said Espinoza. “I know they know I’m in the military, but they don’t really understand it all. I just know that they are proud of me. They would like me closer, so it does suck that we have been so far away for so long. They know all the opportunities that it has given us and the things I have been able to do to help them out as well. They are grateful for that."
She recalls the day she decided to join and was inspired by the recruiter who came to talk to their school.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t necessarily set myself up for college. That wasn’t something instilled in me – OK, you need to make sure your grades are perfect and start taking SATs and ACTs and getting scholarships. My mom was a single mom, so I knew she wasn’t going to be able to afford to send me to college. I didn’t realize how soon you had to start thinking about college.”
"I knew if I stayed in El Paso, I would probably start working but probably not have a career," she continued.
“So the recruiters were at my high school, and I was like, you know what, I’m just going to join,” said Espinoza. “I went home and talked to my mom and made a decision; I’m just going to join, I’m going to sign-up. My mom was all for it. It was kind of like a crash decision.”
Espinoza enlisted in March of that year with the delayed enlistment program and left for basic in July after graduating in June.
“I don’t really have this super I-went-to-go-serve-my-country speech,” said Espinoza. “It sounded like a good deal – honestly. I like to travel, and essentially it would pay for my schooling. I didn’t have plans when they came. Now I’m retiring at 39 – who retires at 39?"
There are a lot of memories over the years for Espinoza.
“I’ve only been in the Guard six years,” said Espinoza. “When I look back, this is what I’m going to look back at the most. The people are what have helped to get me to where I’m at. People here, especially at the 168th, generally want to see you succeed and will do anything in their power to help you.”
Espinoza said, “I like helping people. I like the trust you build with your patients and customers. Which is weird – I’m not necessarily a people person. My whole career has essentially been customer service – In medical, your patients are your customers, and CSS is customer service."
When Espinoza looks back at her career, she remembers being a Senior Airman in England. “Because there were only a few of us at the small location, we learned a lot and helped each other.”
Espinoza reflects on what the military has provided her.
“The military has given me opportunities that I probably would have never had – It helped me grow. You look at things differently,” said Espinoza. “I have lived in places I would have never lived and seen places that I would have never been able to. It has given me stability and even enabled me to help my family back home financially.”
She said the military gives you skill sets that you probably wouldn't get anywhere else.
“Not necessarily skill sets for your job but broader skill sets," she explained. "People and getting to work with people from everywhere and ethnicities and that diversity that you get. If I had stayed at home, I wouldn’t have gotten that.”
“The professionalism that you get. There are so many different things you can take away from being in the military.”
“In the end, it makes you a better person – it makes you an 'all-around' person. The skills I’ll be able to take with me anywhere I go – whatever job I do in the future — even if it is going to school or being a stay-at-home mom. It is all stuff that is relevant." Espinoza said.
Espinoza shared advice for future generations. “Nobody will care about your career as much as you do. Set yourself up for what-ifs. If you set yourself up and an opportunity comes, and you are already set up, it won’t just pass you by. There are so many times where you see someone say ‘nobody told me’ and I believe you should take full reins of your career. You shouldn’t expect someone else to do that.”