Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Peterson Space Observer

HISPANIC HERITAGE: Overcoming culture shock to serve adopted country

(Courtesy photo) MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica — Maj. Dwayne Rolniak, right, presides over a re-enlistment ceremony for Tech. Sgt. Guillermo Mejia at the South Pole. Mejia, who is originally from rural Quitandeje, Mexico, has visited many unique places across the globe in his Air Force career, including Antarctica. He is now with the 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Smith) PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Tech. Sgt. Guillermo Mejia, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron NCO in charge of Base Operational Medical Clinic, administers a vision test to Chris Smith, 721st Civil Engineer Squadron fire department. Mejia has travelled the world in the Air Force after growing up in a rural town north of Mexico City.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Smith)
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Tech. Sgt. Guillermo Mejia, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron NCO in charge of Base Operational Medical Clinic, administers a vision test to Chris Smith, 721st Civil Engineer Squadron fire department. Mejia has travelled the world in the Air Force after growing up in a rural town north of Mexico City.

By Dave Smith

21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.  —  North of Mexico City, the 12th largest city in the world, amongst the scrub and arroyos of Hidalgo State, lies Quitandeje, population of about 200. In this remote, tiny municipality Tech. Sgt. Guillermo Mejia’s Air Force story begins.

Mejia’s journey led from his small home town in Mexico to travelling the world as a member of the U.S. Air Force.

Mejia’s father died when he was a young boy. His mother, Maria, thought making the 1,300 mile trek to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she had in-laws would be the best move for the family. She left Mejia in the care of his grandparents and made her way to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream.

Eight years later, at the age of 15, Mejia made the journey north to be with his mother. He started high school, which can be challenging in a new place under the best circumstances. For Mejia, learning a new language and culture added to the challenge of his new life in America.

“I had culture shock,” he said. “My grandparents had sheep and goats. We grew our own food, corn, beans, whatever you put in the ground.”

Transitioning to a city from his small town beginnings presented changes in many aspects of his life. Some things American city-dwellers take for granted, Mejia had to acclimate himself to.

“You would turn a faucet and get hot or cold water,” said Mejia. “You did not get that where I came from. If you wanted hot water you had to put it on a fire and boil it.”

Personal vehicles were another new concept for him. It seemed everyone in Tulsa had a car, which was not the case in Quitandeje. Travelling to a grocery store was quick and easy in America, the same could not be said for his former home. His new home was racially diverse as well, something he was not accustomed to growing up.

“In the U.S. we didn’t have much, but it was luxury in comparison (to Mexico),” Mejia said. “There was a big difference in how I grew up and how kids were growing up here. It makes you appreciate things more.”

There were more changes ahead for Mejia in 1999. Maria became a U.S. citizen that year. As challenging as his new-found environment was, he made it through high school and returned to Mexico for a year.

Upon returning to Mexico, he connected with a high school friend who also returned home to Mexico. Mejia went to Yucatan to visit his friend and stayed for about nine months. His life would significantly change once again.

During his visit he met his future wife, Katty (pronounced Kay-Tee). Eventually the couple settled in Oklahoma and began a family. In 2006, Mejia took the oath of enlistment when he joined the Air Force. After 10 years, he is now the 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron NCO in charge of the Base Operational Medicine Clinic.

 (Courtesy photo) MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica — Maj. Dwayne Rolniak, right, presides over a re-enlistment ceremony for Tech. Sgt. Guillermo Mejia at the South Pole. Mejia, who is originally from rural Quitandeje, Mexico, has visited many unique places across the globe in his Air Force career, including Antarctica. He is now with the 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

(Courtesy photo)
MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica — Maj. Dwayne Rolniak, right, presides over a re-enlistment ceremony for Tech. Sgt. Guillermo Mejia at the South Pole. Mejia, who is originally from rural Quitandeje, Mexico, has visited many unique places across the globe in his Air Force career, including Antarctica. He is now with the 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

He remembers always being fascinated by the military. His younger brother joined the U.S. Army and said good things about it, so Mejia became more interested in military service. With a family to think about, Mejia said he decided to enlist.

Mejia and his family embraced their new country, but still try to keep their Mexican heritage alive. One way they achieve that is in their language. He and his wife speak only Spanish at home and his children, Giovanni, Ayzel and Giancarlo understand the language. However, since the kids speak English everywhere else, they don’t speak Spanish fluently.

“We celebrate our heritage and traditions,” said Mejia. “It’s part of our culture and we cannot forget who we are. I am also proud to be an American. This country has given a lot to me, but you can’t deny where you came from.”

Serving his country and the benefits provided by the Air Force drew him, but there was something else that led him to the life of an Airman.

“I wanted to see the world, which I have done,” said Mejia. “As a kid growing up I could only dream about going to these places, but now I’ve been there.”

His time in the Air Force afforded Mejia opportunities to visit a number of places near and far. He began his career at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and from there went to a special duty assignment at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, performing aeromedical evacuations. Next he was deployed to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where he flew into Iraq and Afghanistan supporting operations in those countries.

“It was a rewarding, but sad, experience,” he said. “It’s rewarding because you bring home injured Airmen, sad because at the same time you see war injuries to those who were doing their duty to their country.”

Another of Mejia’s unique Air Force travel opportunities took him to the inhospitable landscape of McMurdo Station at the South Pole. He was there as part of Operation Deep Freeze to support medical operations and evacuations.

“The nearest true medical facility was in Christchurch, New Zealand,” Mejia said.

Not only was the South Pole a unique posting for him, but it became a unique place to re-enlist. Mejia said it was time to re-enlist and his boss, Maj. Dwayne Rolniak, suggested they conduct the ceremony right at the actual pole, which they did in full cold-weather gear.

Other deployments took him elsewhere around the world, including Afghanistan and Kuwait. In those assignments he worked closely with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army neurosurgeons and Canadian forces.

Mejia said the Air Force taught him about loyalty and that hard work pays off.

“The (U.S. military) will send a plane, with full crew and staff, to take one family member to a (medical) facility eight to 10 hours away,” he said. “What other country does that?”

The road from Quitandeje to Peterson Air Force Base has been full of challenges, opportunities and resilience for Mejia, but he would not have it any other way.

“The Air Force has been really good to me,” he said. “I’ve raised a family and the military helped.”

Editor’s note: This is part two of a five-part series highlighting Hispanic Airmen for Hispanic Heritage Month.

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