By Halle Thornton
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — After she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2015, Tech. Sgt. Carmen Mena-Flores, noncommissioned officer in charge, commander’s support staff with the National Reconnaissance Office Operations Squadron’s first words were, “This too will pass.”
Mena-Flores’ journey through an often fatal illness inspired her to help other wounded service members, and eventually led her to win the Chief’s Choice Award at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, July 2018.
“My daughter was two at the time, and all I could think about was being there for her and watching her grow,” she said. “My end goal was to survive. I’m the type of person that goes big or goes home. This was not going to beat me.”
Chief Master Sgt. Roderick Schwald, recovery care coordinator with the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, along with other leadership members, nominated her for the Chief’s Choice Award while working with her in the AFW2 Program, a congressionally mandated and federally funded program that provides care and services to ill, wounded service members, both combat and non-combat related.
The Chief’s Choice Award recognizes outstanding Airmen in their work both in the military and local community.
Mena-Flores has been an ambassador and Recovery Airman Mentorship Program mentor since 2016.
“She graciously assists them during their medical treatment, recovery and transition back to duty or civilian status,” Schwald said. “She is currently a RAMP Mentor for nine active duty and retired junior enlisted, senior NCOs and officer wounded warrior mentorees.”
As a mentor, Mena-Flores is paired up with other wounded warriors, reaching out to them and has them tell her their stories.
“This builds a strong relationship and trust,” she said. “Sometimes, all they want to do is talk, so I listen, and it goes a long way; people need that sometimes.”
As an ambassador, Mena-Flores talks about her battle with breast cancer, and how leadership has helped her through the journey.
“That’s also why I decided to apply to be a mentor,” she added. “It’s a way for me to give back to people who have been diagnosed with similar illnesses, not just breast cancer related.”
Mena-Flores’ inspirational leadership resulted in at least three mentorees asking Schwald for permission to become RAMP mentors themselves.
During her battle with cancer, Mena-Flores took college courses with the help of a full Wounded Warrior Scholarship from Colorado Technical University, saying because if she was not able to return to duty, she wanted to have a secure plan for her future.
“I’m a very hopeful person and have faith, but if I do survive this and don’t get to return to duty, I want to make sure my backup plan is ready to go,” she said.
Mena-Flores eventually earned her Bachelor’s in management with a concentration in human resources, and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in project management, planning to graduate in June of 2019.
Mena-Flores takes her story with her to commander’s courses, teaching fellow Airmen how to be resilient.
After six, six hour chemotherapy sessions, three separate surgeries and 25 radiation treatments, Mena-Flores overcame her diagnosis and is now in remission, has since returned to duty and was promoted to Technical Sergeant, thankful her leadership had faith she would make it through.
“Here I am, I’m a survivor, and I couldn’t have done it without support from leadership, squadron, family and local friends,” she said. “It truly makes all the difference.”
Mena-Flores was unaware of her acceptance, or even nomination for the Chief’s Choice Award.
“We were in our morning meeting with the commander, and I started crying when they presented me the award,” she said. “All these things were coming into my head, flashbacks of what mentorees have gone through and are still going through, and how I have helped them in some way through it.”
Mena-Flores said the award motivates her to take care of others even more.
“I don’t do things to get recognized, but I know I’m doing the right thing by our people,” she added.
Not only does Mena-Flores perform highly with the AFW2 program, she excels in her job as well.
Schwald explained Mena-Flores led administrative support for nine launches and seven thousand satellite contacts, meeting mission requirements at a 99.9 percent success rate, ensures the uninterrupted operations of a multi-billion dollar constellation.
Additionally, she tracked, monitored and closed 40 higher headquarters staff action responses, beating the average deadline by three days, saving the unit 72 hours a month.
Mena-Flores also developed a new readiness tracking program which automatically tracks 50 items and drove the NOPS into 100 percent compliance on all individual medical readiness and ancillary training requirements.
Finally, Schwald said she spearheaded a working group to develop the first ever Office of Space Launch Visitor Operating Instruction, a document shaping the future process NRO launch attendees.
“Technical Sergeant Mena-Flores’ short-term goal is to become a first sergeant, and judging by her accomplishments, professionalism and care for the mission and her fellow Airmen, I think she’s heading in the right direction to reach her CCF goal,” Schwald said.
Mena-Flores will continue to give back and motivate people who are going through medical issues.
“I want them to know that if I can do it, they can too,” she said. “It’s so easy for us to be negative, so why don’t we just try being positive? Just look ahead to that finish line.”