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Hispanic Heritage Month: From outhouses to deployments

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Chief Master Sgt. Idalia Peele, 21st Space Wing command chief, stands with her parents, both originally from the Dominican Republic. Peele was born in Queens, N.Y., but spent much of her childhood living in the Dominican Republic with her grandmother. Her heritage helped her become very adaptable to a military environment and fill her role as a command chief by understanding and listening to young Airmen. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Chief Master Sgt. Idalia Peele, 21st Space Wing command chief, stands with her parents, both originally from the Dominican Republic. Peele was born in Queens, N.Y., but spent much of her childhood living in the Dominican Republic with her grandmother. Her heritage helped her become very adaptable to a military environment and fill her role as a command chief by understanding and listening to young Airmen. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Often times one of the biggest challenges when joining the military is going downrange or out to the field for an exercise and not having the amenities from daily life back home.

For Chief Master Sgt. Idalia Peele, 21st Space Wing command chief, going downrange wasn't as much of a challenge because she adapted well to the harsher climate and lack of luxuries since she grew up in an underdeveloped country for part of her childhood.

Peele was born in Queens, N.Y., but moved to the Dominican Republic when she was seven years old to live with her grandparents.

Living about 10 miles outside of town, common luxuries taken for granted in America weren't as common at their house. She said they had an outhouse, had to get water from the well and had intermittent electricity - typically every other day.

The area where they lived was a big community of family members, she said, with her aunts and uncles living right next door.

"I grew up with all my cousins," Peele said. "Everybody would come to grandmother's house and we would play. Baseball was a big thing. We would play with a branch of a tree and somehow we always had a ball."

For her, it wasn't about having many things, but making up fun new games to play and being with family.

Christmas is a time of year that the community really becomes family as well, more so than usual. She said Christmas is celebrated for basically the entire month of December.

"You better have food in your house because we would show up at somebody's house and start singing (Christmas carols) and they would have to cook for everyone," Peele said. "We would have this big party at a different house every night. We did that for almost the whole month of December."

The large emphasis Dominican culture puts on family and hard work carries across every aspect of their lives. Whether it were playing outside, sweeping the floors or making her favorite meal of fried plantains, her grandfather told her the importance of always doing her best, she said.

"I have really taken that on through my whole life, not just in the Air Force," Peele said. "I live my life by those things."

When she moved back to the U.S. at the age of 14, it was a difficult transition because even though she had lived in the U.S. for seven years, she didn't use English at all when in the Dominican Republic.

"My native language, I would say, is still Spanish," she said.

Because of her accent, Peele said she was hesitant about participating in class. Even after joining the Air Force, she struggled with language barriers, particularly at basic training.

"I could not understand a word my (training instructor) was saying," she said. "She was from Texas and I wasn't used to the Texas accent. Suddenly I was like, 'shoot, I thought I knew English!'"

The transition to military life was similar to high school in that Peele was still a little apprehensive about her accent and how people would treat her. Now, 28 years later and a chief master sergeant, she said where she grew up ultimately helped her to adapt to what the military threw at her.

"I feel like I'm easily adaptable to anything," she said. "Deployed locations, field exercises, it doesn't really bother me. ...My background has helped me greatly adapt to different situations."

Her background and experiences throughout her Air Force career have helped her to become a better Airman and role model as well. Her leadership role as a wing command chief requires her to be open and understanding with Airmen, which Peele said she is able to do because she experienced a lot of what the young Airmen are going through and can provide them with guidance and advice.

"Don't lose yourself or forget where you come from," she said. "You have something that can enrich someone else's life with their background and their history. ...They can provide cultural awareness."

Only 13.1 percent of Airmen are Hispanic, which is a small number, but one to be proud of, Peele said. She said at first it may feel like you stand out, but we're all part of one giant family.

"I just feel like an Airman," she said.

The greatest part of being a Hispanic Airman is that she gets to be both, Peele said. She doesn't have to claim being an American and hide her culture. She said she's very proud to have grown up in the Dominican Republic, to be an American and also a member of the Air Force for over 28 years.

"This is who I am," she said.

(This is part five of a five part series highlighting Hispanic Airmen for Hispanic Heritage Month)

Peterson SFB Schriever SFBCheyenne Mountain SFSThule AB New Boston SFS Kaena Point SFS Maui