Academy grad, general, reflects on Hispanic heritage

  • Published
  • By Shannon Collins
  • Defense Department News
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Education and mentorship helped a young Hispanic girl who dreamed of going to the U.S. Air Force Academy not only achieve her dreams, but also earn the rank of major general and the position of deputy A2, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance for Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon.

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, observed Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, Maj. Gen. Linda Urrutia-Varhall shared lessons she learned at the Academy, at luncheons and at other events, hoping to pay it forward to junior enlisted and officers, especially those in the Hispanic community.

Role models
Growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, Urrutia-Varhall said her biggest role models were her parents.

"My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and my father worked at the Pepsi Cola plant," she said. "My dad, I'm proud to say, came in as a janitor and by the time he retired in 39 years, he was running the plant in Pueblo."

She said she got her work ethic from her hard-working parents, adding that her mother is the smartest person she knows. Her relatives didn't really leave Pueblo, but she wanted more. In 1974, at the age of 13, she and her uncle went to visit the Academy.

"I told my uncle, even though there were no women there, I would graduate from there," she said. "He said, 'Oh hija (little one), I know you say that, but they don't let women in here.' Little did I know, I would graduate from there in 1984."

She said her parents told her she could be anything she wanted to be. Her other role model was Lt. Gen. Norma Brown, who, in 1974, became the first woman to command an Air Force wing.

Culture and education
Urrutia-Varhall said her ancestors came up from Mexico after arriving from the Basque region of Spain, settling in Colorado for a generation as pickers at a farm and then working long hours at the steel mill in Pueblo. She said the Air Force was an easy transition for her because the Spanish culture is all about family, and she gets that feeling with the military. The biggest challenge in the military is obtaining the balance of family and career, she said.

"I've been blessed to have met a great man who said he would follow me wherever I went and support me and my career," Urrutia-Varhall said.

The general encourages all Hispanics, as well as all children of all ethnicities, to stay in school and get their education.

"You've got to stay in school to at least have a chance at becoming an enlisted or an officer in the military and doing great things," she said. "Get your secondary education. Some way, you'll make it. Whether you work a job, your mom and dad work, whether you get scholarships or grants, somehow, if you want to go to school bad enough, you can get there, and then all you need is somebody to open the door just once. And for each of us that is in some way successful or helpful, help that one person, just get one person's foot in the door and pay it forward."

Advice and mentorship
The general said she wouldn't be in the position she's in today if it hadn't been for mentors such as her parents, third grade teacher, air officer commander or husband.

To junior service members and civilians working their way toward leadership positions, she offered this advice: "You never know who you'll meet, where you'll get to go or what you'll get to do or see. It really helped expand my horizons. Also, if you're an officer or senior enlisted, always look people in the eye and ask them how they're doing. Have empathy and don't become a nonperson."

Finally, she said, "You belong in every room; learn to be comfortable in any room you walk in. You belong because of your hard work and everything you do. You belong there just as much as anybody else. And you can be whatever you want to be. The only one holding you back is you."