Embracing Heritage and Service: 2nd Lt. Justin Chen

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Margaret Blice
  • 15th Wing

While some service members travel across the world to volunteer their service, one U.S. Air Force lieutenant found his calling a little closer to home.

During Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander heritage month, 2nd Lt. Justin Chen, 15th Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment flight commander, recently shared his personal perspective on how his heritage shaped his aspirations and identity in the military.

“My family heritage traces back to 1986 when my parents and grandparents immigrated to the U.S.,” said Chen. “As a first-generation Chinese American born and raised in Hawaii, my cultural journey began here.”

As he grew up in Hawaii, Chen shared how he began thinking of his future, and turned his attention to getting a higher education to pursue his goal of becoming a pilot for the Hawaii Air National Guard. He was soon accepted into a local university which let him not only be close to his family, but also allowed even more opportunities to expand what he knew of his heritage.

“I speak Cantonese at home and I took Mandarin Chinese all four years of high school. And then I thought, why not try it out in college since [University of Hawaii at Manoa] is one of the only universities that offer that and it will definitely be helpful for whatever job I have,” said Chen. “[It] deepend my connection to my roots and enriched my understanding of my family’s heritage.”

While enrolled in his university's Reserve Officer Training Corps detachment, Chen completed his degree and was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. When he got the news his first duty station would be at Hickam, he was surprised.

“I was so happy. [I wasn’t] selected for pilot, but being able to be stationed here as an aircraft maintenance officer. . . I think that was a blessing disguise,” shared Chen. “Just to be able to stay home and be with my family - I’ve been really happy that the Air Force has been able to give me this opportunity.”

When Chen arrived at his first office, he explained he didn’t know exactly what to expect, but he turned to the values he learned growing up and got to know the people around him.

“I think in Hawaii and in Asian culture the family aspect is really important. Even if you’re not blood related, you treat each other as family. That’s the aloha spirit.”

Chen went on to say that observance months like AANHPI heritage month hold a profound significance for him as it’s a time to celebrate the culture, history and contributions made by the AANHPI community, though it shouldn’t be limited to just one month out of the year.

“The first few months I was here. . . I just went around my shop and sat down with everyone during breaks and just got to know them - got to know their background. They know me and I know them,” said Chen.

“Just having an open mind allows you to experience a lot of different perspectives that you might not have known otherwise. Sharing our cultures allows us to learn more about each other and goes a long way in making sure each Airmen feels valued and included.”