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One Airman’s Journey: SSgt Jael Thomas

(Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a three-part series on diversity)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Her eyes are dark and her smile is bright. She’s a wife, an Airman, proud mother and a survivor. 

Standing only five feet tall with a slender build, it could be easy to underestimate how strong this non-commissioned officer is; but her inner strength is incredible.

Staff Sgt. Jael Thomas, 60th Comptroller Squadron NCO in charge of customer service and deputy disbursing officer from Manila, Philippines, has overcome adversity numerous times in life.

At the age of 14 in February 2002, less than a year before her family moved to the United States, she lost her mother.

“We were told it would take a miracle to save her,” said Thomas. “She suffered for almost a year before succumbing to cancer. The day before she passed I told her I loved her and was so happy when she told me she loved me. I’ve asked myself many times how things would be if she was still around.”

Thomas spent much of her childhood in Caloocan, the fourth largest city in the Philippines.

“Life was simple even though we didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “Growing up our routine was go to school, watch cartoons, play outside, have dinner and go to bed. I would go to Saturday mass with my grandparents and to Sunday services with my mother.”

In April 2003, her family moved to the United States settling in San Diego. The move brought a challenge the staff sergeant said she didn’t expect; adapting to the American school system.

“We left the Philippines during the summer and I just finished my junior year of high school,” said Thomas. “Due to my age I was admitted as a sophomore and not all of my classes were credited. I was devastated at first. I thought I had to start high school all over again when I was almost done.”

However, Thomas soon realized the American school system was more relaxed than what she experienced in her home country and she also found the curriculum to be easier.

“In the Philippines, we went to school in morning and afternoon shifts,” she said. “The teachers were much stricter and we had pop quizzes almost every day.”

Looking back, Thomas said she’s thankful for the opportunity to attend high school in two countries.

“I’m glad that I had the opportunity because it gave me enough time to adjust to (American) culture and make lifelong friends,” she said. “You know how some people say, ‘I wish I could go back to high school?’ Well, I kind of did, in two different countries. I think that’s pretty cool.”

After graduating high school at the age of 19, Thomas worked as a manager at a fast-food restaurant and took general education classes at Grossmont Community College for nearly eight years before deciding to join the U.S. Air Force in October 2010.

“I struggled to make ends meet and wanted a better life,” she said. “Working full-time started to burn me out so I stopped taking classes after one semester. I started again after a couple years and continued taking classes one semester a year. I wanted job stability, health benefits, to finish my education and most importantly, make my father proud.”

Thomas recalls how her father would introduce her and her siblings.

“He would say, ‘This is my oldest, he’s in the Army, this is my youngest, she’s in the Army National Guard and this is my middle child, she’s a supervisor at Jollibee,’” she said. “When I decided to join, I didn’t want him to know at first, until I was done with the process to save disappointment.”

Eventually, Thomas’s father found her Air Force delayed entry program shirt while folding laundry. He asked her why she had it.

“I told him I was in the process of joining the Air Force,” said Thomas.

She was surprised to learn her father wasn’t disappointed with her decision.

“He was excited,” she said. “I told him what was going on and he wanted the shirt, since it was oversized. I told him that he could have it when I left for basic training.”

Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity as the same deadly disease that claimed the life of Thomas’s mother also took her father.

“He succumbed to cancer in December 2009 and I didn’t leave for BMT until October 2010,” Thomas said as she fought back tears. “He never got to wear the shirt and he never got the chance to see me in uniform. I graduated BMT a couple of days before his first death anniversary.”

“I know he’d be really proud if he was here today, and I just wish that I could see the smile and pride on his face,” she said. “I feel the same for my mother as well.”

As the NCOIC of customer service and a deputy disbursing officer for the 60th CPTS, Thomas is responsible for assisting customers with a variety of military and travel pay concerns. She’s also responsible for issuing funds for more than 30 organizations across Travis Air Force Base, California. 

“Sergeant Thomas is a hard working Airman who always goes the extra mile,” said Master Sgt. Brady Black, 60th CPTS Financial Services flight chief. “Her impact is felt throughout the squadron as she’s always setting up squadron events. Additionally, her efforts in the disbursing office have made it so we don’t worry about disbursing operations. That’s the best compliment anyone can get, being so awesome at your job that we forget it’s there and take for granted it will always be top notch.”

The 60th CPTS is a diverse unit consisting of nearly 60 Airmen from seven different countries. The unit provides services for more than 12,000 active-duty and Reserve Airmen, as well as retirees and civilian employees.

Having so much diversity within the unit is one of its greatest strengths, said Black.

“It’s amazing for such a small squadron to have Airmen from seven different countries that bring an infectious energy and thirst for knowledge that we are all better for it,” he said. “It encourages us to think about what motives we have, and pushes us to succeed not just in our mission but our lives. The diverse members of CPTS have had very challenging lives and worked hard to become U.S. citizens and Airmen. That inspires the rest of us.”

Thomas, who became a U.S. citizen in November 2012, said she enjoys being part of a diverse team and shared a moment when she used her background to help an elderly couple.

“An old Filipino couple was in the customer service lobby looking lost,” said Thomas. “The old man, who I believe was a retiree, was disabled and couldn’t talk much, so I spoke to his spouse in our native language. Her face lit up and she told me her concerns.”

The couple simply needed direction on where to go for a new ID card. Being able to help them feel more comfortable and find a solution to their problem was a great feeling, said Thomas.

She encourages everyone to embrace diversity.

“Diversity in the workplace enhances our understanding of other cultures,” she said. “It also helps with decision making and mission readiness when we engage globally. This way, we can rapidly project American power anytime...anywhere and become America's finest mobility force.”