SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.-- --
Camila Shockey was a toddler when civil war ravaged her home country of El Salvador.
The few memories she does have are vague, relying almost entirely on secondhand stories from her older relatives, all of whom were affected by the conflict in some way.
“We had a two-story house and I remember we had to bring the mattresses downstairs because we were being bombed,” said Shockey. “I was too young to know the danger of the situation. I remember the panic though.”
Turbulent beginnings marked the start of a childhood spent in the Central American country, where she witnessed the crime and visible scars that prolonged after the war’s end.
“The aftermath of the war was still there,” she said. “It can be a beautiful country, but half the time you had to drive with your windows up. You were always looking over your shoulder.”
So when an opportunity presented itself for her to receive her green card and travel to the United States, she took it.
Shockey’s brother, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Alejandro Leal, remembers when he found out his younger sister was coming to the states.
“I was pretty happy she made the decision (to move to the U.S.),” Leal said. “You want the best for your siblings and it’s much safer.”
Of course there were many things to love and miss about her homeland, namely her family and friends. Unlike her brother, Shockey remembers her parents weren’t too pleased with her new decision to move abroad.
“They wanted me to stay in El Salvador, go to school and eventually work for them” said Shockey. “It was a tough choice, but I wanted to travel. It was such a small country, I wanted to experience something outside of its culture.
“El Salvador is very set in its ways, you don’t get to experience other customs or traditions. It’s one way of doing things and that’s it. I felt traveling would expand my horizon,” she said.
Her initial journey to the U.S. brought her to America’s heartland, greeting her with the farming plots and flat inroads of rural Kansas - in the middle of winter.
It was a stark contrast for Shockey, who grew up next to a volcano and had never seen a flake of snow.
“I never experienced a winter season,” she said. “It was a shock coming from the tropics.”
It was there, while living with her brother, she witnessed a wide array of cultures and ethnic peoples she had never seen before. Chinese restaurants were nearly omnipresent in most towns, Native American reservations dotted the terrain and pizza parlors lined downtown streets. Even in the deep Midwest communities of Kansas, most had some sort of staple from another culture.
“There were people from all over the world in the states,” said Shockey. “It was very interesting. You don’t see that in El Salvador. I thought it was awesome.”
Shockey’s fondness with the U.S. and her diverse perspective grew when she moved to California, worked small jobs and fine-tuned her English, expanding her vocabulary from the few basic words she knew upon arrival.
“It was struggle to communicate sometimes,” she said. “Most of the words I knew were from watching American television. It took me close to a year and a half to be able to fluently speak it.”
Though her El Salvadorian heritage remained an integral part of her personality, she soon considered the United States her second home.
“I realized that I fell in love with this country and its people,” said Shockey. “I never had a bad experience of prejudice because of my heritage, I felt I was treated fairly.”
All the while, her brother, working as a recruiter, encouraged her to use her new found passion to serve.
“My brother was the first one to join the military in my family and he always wanted to be a Marine. He was a big influence, he wanted to recruit me into the Marine Corps,” she said. “At the time, I wasn’t certain if the military life was for me.
“That changed when I went to a funeral and I saw the Air Force honor guard. I saw the uniform and discipline they had, and it left such a big impression on me I went back and started researching about the military,” said Shockey.
With the help of her brother, Shockey enlisted in the Air Force.
“I helped her with the necessary paper work and took her to MEPS (military entrance processing station)” said Leal. “I wanted her to join the Marines, but I knew she could make it in any branch. She was always highly driven, more than I ever was. I can tell she really loved the Air Force.”
Her leadership capabilities were recognized at Basic Military Training and she was selected as an element leader, calling out orders to her fellow flight mates even though she still had a heavy accent. Shockey found out she wasn’t the only foreign-born trainee. She saw the variety of cultural backgrounds her flight mates had and the indifference others had to these individual characteristics when they all wore the uniform.
“I met people from everywhere. When I came to the states, I never really felt like I belonged to something. I had a hard time connecting to people, not just because of my English,” she said. “When I joined, I gained a sense that I belonged to something again. It didn’t matter how different we were, we had all had something in common.”
Working as a personalist for 10 years, Shockey now leads as a non-commissioned officer in the Command Support Staff for the 50th Security Forces Squadron.
However, that’s not the only way she’s making waves on base.
After joining the Air Force, Shockey focused on improving her physical fitness, regularly working out and engaging in functional fitness programs. She has risen to become one of Schriever’s most prominent and decorated athletes, participating in last year’s CrossFit Open Announcement here and recently earning Schriever Female Competitor of the Year.
Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Goldstrom, who was Shockey’s first sergeant when she was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, can attest to her character and drive for physical fitness.
“She was a source of motivation, people would gravitate to her and she pushed her peers during physical training,” said Goldstrom. “She was the kind of person that if she was determined to do something, she was going to do it and exceed.”
“Physical fitness gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Shockey said. “It’s important to always be ready fitness-wise. I’m in an administrative position, but on my first deployment I was with Army Special Forces, going in convoys and wearing full battle gear-you need to be fit for that.”
That was but one factor of her service.
Shockey has not only adopted a new country to call home, but through her decision to protect and defend it and its people, has gained an extended family as well.
“I formed another family away from El Salvador,” said Shockey. “I wasn’t a stranger anymore. All of us were in it together.”
“I’m proud of my sister,” said Leal. “She’s doing bigger and better things.”
When she became part of the military, she saw cultural differences brought benefits to all and did not act to divide, but unite service members.
“Coming to the states and joining the military opened my eyes to the world,” said Shockey. “The Air Force allowed me to lead people and experience different cultures. If I stayed in El Salvador, I would still have that one cultural mindset and would probably be working for my parents. I have no regrets at all.”