From the Philippines to the U.S. Air Force and Space Force: How one service members unique upbringing forged a path dedicated to military service

  • Published
  • By SAF/PA Staff Writer
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

For Enterprise Talent Management Office Senior Enlisted Leader Chief Master Sgt. Swani Caraballo, military service runs in the family. However, her legacy is not forged from the traditional “military brat” paradigm. In fact, her father served in the German army, and her maternal grandfather wore the uniform for his home nation of the Philippines. While both of these influences indeed shaped her military destiny, it was actually a poignant experience as a young girl that solidified her desire to join the Air Force. 

At the age of 5, Caraballo’s family moved to Saudi Arabia where her dad worked as a contractor and her mother served as a nurse for the Philippine Embassy. The family’s arrival coincided with the beginning of the Gulf War. An encounter while picking her mother up from work one day made an impression that set her military service trajectory into motion.

Caraballo recalled the incident with uncanny clarity.

“My dad always picked my mom up from work because women were not allowed to drive,” she said. “One of those days, my brother and I were in the car, and my mother was taking forever to exit the compound, so the guard allowed us to enter the embassy instead of waiting outside the gate. When we walked into the building, the walls were lined with war refugees who were distraught, scared, confused, and in some cases, sick or injured. As I watched my mom and her colleagues pass through the halls triaging refugees, I started sobbing inconsolably. When my dad tried to comfort me, I wept to him that I was more scared than I’d ever been in my life.”

At that exact moment, a formation of F-15 Eagles roared past overhead, and her father’s response shaped her life forever.

“Don’t worry baby girl,” he said. “Those are the Americans. They’re here to help and everything is going to be OK.”

The Gulf War is widely considered a resounding demonstration of how a skillfully employed air campaign can deliver overwhelming effects, and Caraballo concurs.

“It was absolutely defining,” she emphasized. “I realized instantly the Air Force’s capacity to help the entire world.”

Fast forward to 2004 when Caraballo and her brother emigrated from the Philippines to the U.S. to pursue their dreams. They received their permanent resident cards in 2005 and she enlisted in the Air Force in 2006. 

“The whole family came together to make it happen,” she noted. 

Caraballo was trained in Air Force personnel and spent time in Texas, North Carolina and North Dakota honing her skillset before accepting an assignment to Korea right before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.

“Most of my time overseas was spent dealing with the intensity of COVID,” she said. “Because of our geographic location, our mission never paused. We never stopped moving people in and out of theater. We only shut down for a week, whereas most everyone else across the force went to telework.”

She categorized the tour as a challenging but inspiring example of what a team can accomplish when everyone rallies around a common goal.

“Everyone gave their all…the leadership team jumped in wherever needed, to include watching my kids at one point when the Child Development Center was shut down,” she added.

While finishing up her time in Korea, Caraballo stumbled upon the opportunity to work for the Space Force’s ETMO. She was thrilled to be selected for the position and eager to move outside her comfort zone.

“It took me about six months to get the hang of it, to learn everything and ask the right questions,” she said. “It’s been an adventure, and I love the pathfinding, the challenges, the differences the Space Force is working to incorporate into its framework. We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.”

ETMO is the Space Force’s talent management branch which ensures the right Guardians are doing the right job based on their strengths, interest, and performance. The framework for ETMO can be found in the Guardian Ideal.

Taking care of people remains Caraballo’s number one priority. She believes that even though the military is almost always behind on the manpower front, the people make the difference through their hard work and dedication.

“Particularly with our dispersed team, the amount of effort everyone puts in to remain synchronized is mind blowing,” she said.

When pondering what it takes to be successful in ETMO, Caraballo says it all comes down to remaining passionate about the work even when it’s difficult or frustrating.

“Every single Guardian needs to care,” Caraballo asserted. “Our programs are critical and they impact lives. We cannot afford to be careless about our intent and execution.”

An ETMO team that’s self-driven and open minded is also key to the organization’s success, she added.

Particularly when it comes to defining the roles and relationships between officers, enlisted and civilian Guardians. As the Space Force defines itself, Caraballo believes her current command team is an ideal model.

“Here at ETMO, we are a command team with heavy emphasis on team, bottom line,” she explained. “We respect each other, we cross flow information, we speak up when someone is missing the mark.”

In terms of her family’s military legacy transferring to the next generation, she and her husband, who was recently selected as an Air Force chief master sergeant, hope their two boys will consider military service in their future plans.

“Discipline, healthy lifestyle, meaningful work, education, a retirement plan, and skill sets that transfer to any facet of life…I would love my kids to follow in my footsteps,” she said. “Whether it’s Space Force or Air Force for them, I have no doubt they will come out of it better people.”