ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Maj. Angela Atha is a health services administrator assigned to the 139th Medical Group in the Missouri Air National Guard. She is also half Filipino and half German. In 2019, she had the opportunity to visit her mother's hometown in the Philippines for the first time, and it solidified her appreciation for Filipino people and culture.
“Mom would tell us stories about living in a house with dirt floors and not having educational opportunities beyond 8th grade,” she said. “My brother and I did not fully respect what my mom and so many other Filipino-Americans overcame to have a safer, healthier, better life, and to give those same opportunities to their future generations.”
Atha says Filipino traditions and celebrations are similar to those in the U.S., but Filipinos tend to do them on a bigger level. She recalls birthday parties where she could invite all of her school friends, but her mother would also invite 30 to 50 Filipinos, making the celebration huge with American and Filipino food, music, and games.
One tradition she recalls during New Year's Eve involves spreading loose change throughout the floors of the house, which was said to bring good wealth into the new year.
“I mostly remember being the kid that had to pick it all up,” she said.
For Atha, these traditions serve as a way to reconnect and refocus on the importance of family.
“Family is a bedrock of Filipino culture; as you age, you live with your children or grandchildren in one house and take care of one another,” she said. “These celebrations and traditions bring us back and center us around the necessity of family.”
As young as 9 years old, Atha knew she wanted to join the military. She grew up in a family with a long history of military service, with her grandfather having served in the U.S. Coast Guard and three great uncles serving in various branches of the U.S. military during World War II.
Hearing stories of her father's time in the U.S. Marine Corps further fueled her desire to serve. Her brother joined the Air Force after graduating high school and Atha joined after graduating college. For her, joining the military was not just a career choice, but a lifelong ambition.
“I always wanted to be the first woman and the first officer in our historied past,” she said. “And I was able to achieve that goal because of the guidance and support I received at the 139th.”
Atha initially joined the North Carolina Air National Guard at the 145th Airlift Wing as an aerospace medical technician. She later transferred to the 131st Bomb Wing in Missouri. She attributes her success to an incredible supervisor who encouraged her to seek out other opportunities, and that led her to the 139th Airlift Wing where she eventually commissioned as an officer into her current role.
Atha said the 139th was a perfect fit for her. After one of her deployments, she moved to Colorado and although it requires a 12-hour drive and over 700 miles of travel to attend drill, she says the people and mission at the 139th make it all worth it.
One of Atha’s favorite memories of serving was during basic training almost 15 years ago.
“While our flight was marching back to our dorms, retreat and the National Anthem sounded, and we stopped to render our first salute,” she said. “I began to tear up as I processed the obligation, indebtedness, and respect for our flag while wearing the Air Force uniform for the first time. Every time I salute while in uniform, I think back to that moment when my entire world stopped, and I became one of the 1%.”
Atha encourages new troops to be open to change and to respond with a "yes" more often than a "no," and to welcome diversity and allow it to broaden their horizons.
“The best advice I ever received and witnessed first-hand was to surround yourself with diverse people,” she said. “Culturally diverse, diverse in thought [and] approach, diverse in experience [and] expertise. And respect and trust them to do a good job.”
Atha likes a quote from General Patton who said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
As Atha reflects on her journey in the military, she knows that it was the right choice for her. She has been able to serve her country with honor and distinction.
“I am the first to admit that I may not have the right [or] best answer,” she said. “But I am fully confident that the 139th Airlift Wing is full of innovative, intelligent, purpose and mission-driven people that can get us there if we are open-minded to the journey.”
During May drill and in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander month, the 139th Diversity Council will host Atha's mother as a guest speaker.