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From an L.A. gang to the U.S. Air Force

  • Published
  • By Scott Knuteson
  • Air University Public Affairs
Former Los Angeles area gang member Jose Barraza reminded Montgomery city and business leaders how their influence can change lives.

Now a senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, he credits his success in part to the attention a few key leaders paid to him as a young man.

"Do people look up to you because of your position or because of the person you are?" Sergeant Barraza challenged those in the room. "Do they know your name or just your rank or title?"

Sergeant Barraza, Air Force Senior NCO Academy flight instructor, recounted to attendees during his speech at the River Region Forum, Oct 28, his upbringing in a rough environment, where family barbecues were regularly interrupted by fights and even a murder.

He told of his brush with incarceration, an 18-month stint in the California Youth Authority system, one step away from a full prison sentence.

It was only after being shot for the fifth time when Sergeant Barraza was determined to abandon his dangerous ways, for the sake of his mother and sisters.

At age 18, he enlisted in the Air Force.

His recruiter, a technical sergeant, became one link in a chain of leaders, including a mayor and a police chief, who showed genuine interest in his life. They had a hand in shaping Sergeant Barraza's life story, a story he learned to share for others' benefit only after being challenged to do so by his first sergeant at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

At the time, young Airmen on Edwards AFB were chronically drawn in by area gang activity. Sergeant Barraza, who had successfully avoided falling back to his old ways, hesitated to share his past, thinking people might judge him differently for it.
He was able to share his story with Airmen who -- to his surprise -- looked up to him even more after hearing it.

Since then, he has made it his goal to share his story along the way, as he has progressed through the ranks and through Air Force professional military education.

Airman Leadership School "taught me what it meant to have an idea of leadership and vision and what one's impact on others could be," he said.

At an NCO Academy, Sergeant Barraza said he learned more about leading groups of people.

Ten years into Sergeant Barraza's Air Force career, his mother, who was involved in gang life throughout his childhood, was diagnosed with cancer. Sergeant Barraza was relocated under the Air Force's humanitarian program and allowed to care for her in his home.

It was only at this point that she began to understand the change which took place in his life, due to the efforts of so many leaders along the way, he said.

"She saw [the results of] people like you, the military and community leadership, who did what they could to foster better community leaders," he said. "Without question, because of people like you, I've dedicated my life to the community."

Sergeant Barraza said it was on this same day, eight years ago, his mother passed away from cancer.

"My Air Force family has never let me down," he said. "They were there when my mom passed away, and it is because of people like them and you that I can share my story today."

"When I put on this uniform, it's not about me, or the Air Force, it's about all of us," he said.

The River Region Forum is a quarterly event hosted by Air University to educate community leaders and foster an increased cooperation between the military and local area.