MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
This year, the 5th Civil Engineer Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., has a unique reason to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, which celebrates the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic American citizens. The 5th CES is currently overseen by a triad of leaders of Hispanic heritage, giving each of them a common thread and lending a unique perspective on what it means to lead and uplift the members of their squadron. As efforts are being made to diversify the military and provide inclusivity for all, leaders like those of the 5th CES are a prime example that times are changing and anything is possible.
The triad is a team composed of the Commander, Chief, and First Sergeant. These three positions work in harmony to make decisions for their squadron and support the morale and welfare of its personnel. Through sheer happenstance, SMSgt. Sergio Gonzalez, CMSgt. Lester Largaespada, and Lt. Col. David Dammeier were brought together as an all-Hispanic triad for the first time in their lives.
SMSgt. Sergio Gonzalez, First Sergeant for the 5th CES, is a first generation Mexican-American from Los Angeles, Calif. He joined the Air Force at 17 years old in an effort to do something positive with his life, despite several negative influences that surrounded him in LA. “It was to better myself and to do better for my family, and it really turned into something that I did to make my folks proud,” he said.
When it came time to decide whether or not to reenlist in his early years, Gonzalez found that he enjoyed the security of his Air Force career and the opportunity it gave him to support his family. Over time, it has evolved into something greater. “After that, it became more of a lifestyle that I valued. I was grateful for the opportunities I was afforded being in the Air Force, I was grateful for the experiences and the people I got to know, and I wanted to make sure to pay it forward to the rest of the Airmen coming up after me,” he said.
As a first generation, Gonzalez holds onto his roots with pride. “I was the first of my family born here. So, I’ve always been proud of that and proud of the heritage and our family back in Mexico. I’m an American, I’m a patriot, and I serve the Air Force, but we can’t ever forget our roots. The sense of family and tradition is what I try to hold near and dear to my heart so I don’t forget where I came from.”
Gonzalez has been in Minot since August 2020 and has greatly enjoyed the experiences he’s had so far, especially under their unique circumstances. “Have I been in work centers in the past where I work with other Hispanic Americans? Yeah of course. But at a squadron command level, for that to happen, it was by accident. It’s special and I think it’s good for our younger minority Airmen to see. When I was coming up as a young Airman, I didn’t see very many Hispanic Commanders, Chiefs, or First Sergeants and for our Airmen to have all three I think it’s pretty cool. This is special, this is different, something I never thought I’d have, and I’m grateful for it.”
Gonzalez’s favorite part about his current job is taking care of the Airmen in his charge. “I get to help people overcome obstacles all day, help them, and counsel them. I haven’t been able to get that anywhere else. It’s the best job in the Air Force.”
CMSgt. Lester Largaespada is the Squadron Superintendent/Chief for the 5th CES. Born in Nicaragua, he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1985 to seek political asylum from communist rule. At only seven years old, Largaespada, his two brothers, and his parents shared a one bedroom living space in Dallas, Texas. “When we immigrated, my family and I didn’t have anything. We were kids, and we were going to work with my dad and mom. My dad worked construction and my mom helped out where she could. We would just wait out in the car from seven o’clock to five o’clock, and that was during the summertime. Obviously that’s not ideal, but in 1985 you had to make it one way or another. We didn’t have any childcare, we didn’t have any resources, we didn’t have any money,” he explained.
The challenges he faced growing up inspired Largaespada to enlist in the Air Force after graduating high school in 1996. His goal was to give back to the country that had given him and his family the opportunity to have a better life. “Coming from a communist country to the U.S., you appreciate the freedoms and the rights that you have here which is not the case in many countries,” he said.
He originally planned to stay in the Air Force for only four years. But from 1996 to 2001, Largaespada was stationed at Grand Forks AFB, N.D., where he enjoyed the people and the connections that he had made so much that he decided to reenlist. “I ended up really enjoying what I was doing in the Air Force and here I am 25 years later. It really is a privilege to serve and be a part of something bigger than yourself.”
As an immigrant, Largaespada has faced some discrimination “outside the gate” in local communities where he was stationed, but he spoke highly of the inclusiveness of everyone he has worked with in the Air Force and Civil Engineer community. “I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career field. My first duty station, the folks that I worked with embraced the fact that I was an immigrant and they really took an interest,” he said. When he became a U.S. citizen in 1999, his entire shop from Grand Forks attended the ceremony.
One thing that Largaespada feels passionate about is helping find opportunities like the ones he was offered. Between 2005 and 2009, he performed a special duty assignment with the Student Affairs Flight at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy at Lackland AFB, Texas.
“The mission of that academy is to train international military students from Latin America. They come over and they train with us for three months at a time and we have different courses from logistics to an international NCO academy to security forces courses, how to become a crew chief, pilot courses, squadron officer school... So, there were a lot of Air Force courses but it was all in Spanish.”
The Student Affairs Flight was in charge of coordinating trips and helping students with their challenges outside of the classroom. Through that assignment, Largaespada was able to help others find a sense of purpose and community that they could take with them, just as he had. “That was an opportunity to not only give back to the Air Force and the nation but to our Latin community. To be able to do that was quite the privilege,” he said.
Now that Largaespada is on his eighth assignment at Minot AFB, he is finding himself right at home with the leadership time of the 5th CES. “I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that we’re Hispanic, as a leadership team. In my career, the way we operate—the decision making, the strategies, the way of thinking—I don’t see it as Hispanic or not. From the leadership perspective, from running the squadron perspective, it’s in line with other teams. What makes it different is the personal side. I believe having that common thread has really enhanced our working relationship. It adds to our synergy. It’s unique in the sense that I’ve never been a part of a unit where your triad—your commander, your first sergeant and your chief—are all Hispanic. It’s kind of like capturing lightning in a bottle,” he said.
Largaespada’s background is one more thing that inspires him as a leader. “Growing up, I always kept things in perspective. Experiences like that make me resilient to future challenges in life that test your will and character. I’ve always kept in mind where I come from, and that my parents did not sacrifice what they had in Nicaragua for us to come over here and settle.”
“Background provides diversity and different perspectives on who you are and how you see things, and that’s something that has always shaped who I am. Those experiences make you resilient and they also make you appreciate what you have. Every day I wake up and I tell myself ‘okay I’ve got to earn it.’ And I won’t take it for granted because of where I came from.”
Lt. Col. David Dammeier was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and his family immigrated to Los Angeles, Calif., when he was just one and a half years old. He spent most of his life in LA and eventually attended University of Southern California where he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a civil engineer.
In July of 2020, he joined Team Minot as the Commander of the 5th CES. His Mexican roots play a part in how Dammeier became the leader he is today. Like his First Sergeant and Chief, Dammeier’s career in the Air Force is his opportunity to give back to the country that provided a better life for him and his family. “[My family] wanted to move up from Mexico because of job opportunities. The life that I have here versus the life that I would have had in Mexico is completely night and day, and it all has to do with opportunity. So why am I giving back? Because I have been given so much and I believe it’s part of my duty to give back,” he said.
And similar to Largaespada, the initial plan was to stay in for only four years. “What changes is your feeling about what you do, and for me it wasn’t a job—it turned out to be a calling. I started seeing the personal value of what I was doing as a part of something bigger than myself.”
Dammeier believes in the importance of remembering where one comes from in order to provide a better experience for yourself and those around you. “We’re standing on the shoulders of our parents and all the trials and tribulations that they went through to make a better life for us. I think as I look back, from a cultural perspective, I believe that if we are a good representation of our culture, it makes us better. We can provide a different perspective because culturally we were raised differently. For me, there’s a sense of pride in where I came from and what my family went through, and we have a responsibility to make it better for the next generation,” Dammeier explained.
His thoughts on the all-Hispanic triad align with his team’s. “It speaks to the diversity of the Air Force. This is the first time that I’ve ever had a Latin command team and I’m pretty proud of that... they all have a background similar to mine where their families came from certain adversities and overcame it. They, like myself, made choices to make their lives better. I think that’s a good attribute to have…you should know where you come from and build on that and know that not everybody comes from your background. Some people had it better and some people had worse upbringings than you, but it’s about what you do with what you have.”
As the military’s Hispanic population continues to grow, Dammeier recognizes the benefits that come with that diversity. “What I like about the Air Force and about CE is that we have a very diverse population with inclusion for all. We try to profess within the squadron dignity and respect for all, and we need to keep inspiring the future generation because we need those future leaders to want to lead.”
After 20 years in the Air Force, Dammeier believes it is the people around him who keep him going. “Those people that I get to work with have shown me a different perspective of the world and I am a better person because of learning from them. I have gained insight to how they approach a problem or a situation and I believe as leaders we need to listen to everyone’s perspective before we make a decision. When you talk to good people, you feel better about yourself and feel like maybe I am a part of something bigger than myself and you start realizing how special this place is. There’s nothing like it.”
A Cohesive Triad
It’s easy to see the commonalities between the leaders of the 5th CES. Because of their unique upbringings, many of their lessons learned and ways of thinking about life, leadership, and success align with each other.
Dammeier, Gonzalez, and Largaespada’s Hispanic heritage does not completely define them as leaders, but it gives them a chance to take the knowledge that they have gained from their upbringings into their career field to make it a better place for Airmen of all ages, ranks, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
“That’s the beautiful thing about our country. In the Air Force, there’s room for [diversity] and I think that we all grow together because of it. Depending on where you grew up and where your family is from, we all have different ways of thinking about things and that’s very valuable to the Air Force,” said Gonzalez.
For every child looking to the future, there is an Airman, an NCO, an Officer, or a civilian out there who can profess that anything is possible, no matter where you come from.