TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Destiny often appears inevitable with the benefit of hindsight, yet understanding where our path to military service began and where it might end, has a way of changing with time. Master Sgt. Gracie Piehl’s destiny was anything but clear to her as a young woman, but 21 years after joining the 349th Air Mobility Wing family, she feels at home.
Piehl was born Graciela Saenz in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and is the youngest of nine children. Soon after, the family moved to Del Rio, Texas, where her parents grew up. Her father had medically retired from the Army, and while he was only in his forties, his health was failing. Three years after Piehl was born, he was gone.
“My mother’s family was from Spain,” said Piehl, “and she was raised in large part by her grandmother, who instilled in her a strong love of family. Because of my mother, we became very tight knit. She held us together, and she told us, ‘This is what you have. Without family, you are alone. Family is the ultimate gift.’”
Because she came along well after her siblings, Piehl said, her family could only see her as a child, even after she became an adult. While love was all around, she longed for a life of her own making.
“When you’re a teenager you really aren’t always sure what you want to do, but I knew I wanted to leave home,” she said. “I knew the only way my mother would cut the apron strings was if I were to just pack and leave.”
So with two suitcases, $350 and high hopes, she booked the first flight of her life.
Piehl recalls she had no idea what she was doing, but she did have a cashier’s job waiting for her at Travis Air Force Base, California. Having worked at Laughlin AFB, Texas as a teenager, her former boss called a friend who agreed to hire her.
In the end, she worked three jobs to get by on her own; as a cashier at a club, a reservations supervisor at a lodging facility, and a night shift attendant at a gas station in Fairfield, California. She was independent, but after a while, she wanted more.
“I talked to my brother, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, and he said, ‘Sis, you need structure, join the military,’” she said. “I told him I didn’t want to leave California, but I would think about it.”
As fate would have it, while working at the club, Piehl met two chief master sergeants from the 349th Air Mobility Wing. When she told them about her dilemma, they helped her find a way to lift herself up.
“They told me what the Air Force Reserve could offer, and encouraged me to make the leap,” said Piehl. “So I enlisted and went into the medical administration career field. I just did it. I joined the Reserve, and I kept my home in California.”
Not only did becoming a traditional reservist allow her to quit the gas station job, after completing training and getting experience under her belt, she became a full-time air reserve technician.
“When I joined the Air Force, I needed structure,” Piehl said. “I needed to grow into the person I wanted to be, and the Reserve was a perfect solution for me. The pain of leaving my family in Texas felt as if a part of me had been severed. I felt like I didn’t have anyone. But eventually the friends I met here, and while I was deployed, became my extended family. This is why I love the Air Force. They are my family also, because they have my back.”
In 1999, she found more than a friend in Andy Piehl, then a fellow Citizen Airman at the 349th AMW.
“We were friends for a while, but eventually in 2000 we began to date, and then married in 2002 in Vacaville, California,” Piehl said. “Our little boy came along in 2003. He’s the light of our life.”
Not long ago, following the loss of her mother and brother, Piehl reflected on her father’s life and legacy. But because she was so young when he died, all her memories and images of him were manifested from the stories her mother and siblings. She asked her aunt for help in understanding more about him.
“She started telling me, ‘You know, your daddy did so much we never spoke of,’” she said. “He was a humble man. He wasn’t one to talk about himself and his achievements. He did what he felt he needed to do. He was there in Normandy on D-Day, and he was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries.’”
Piehl said the revelation stunned her, and overwhelmed her with pride for her father and her entire family. Suddenly, her own journey of service to country seemed inevitable.
“I have been blessed with the family I was born into, and also my Air Force family,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”