As America honors and remembers our brave fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, Latina U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, Natalia Pinto and Susan Hurtado, both Cadets First Class, prepare to graduate along with their 387 classmates next Thursday, June 2.
Pinto, 26, part Puerto Rican and part Spanish, told Fox News Latino that she grew up in South Florida. When it was time to graduate high school, she had virtually a full scholarship to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, but she was scared to go.
“My dad was in the Air Force – a staff sergeant. After considering it and talking about it with him and considering the education and stability, I thought the Academy was the best course for me,” Pinto told Fox News Latino.
Latino cadets currently only make up 8.5 percent of the cadet wing (approximately 4,000 students), and women just 22.5 percent, both Pinto and Hurtado, 22, say being a woman and Latina has been more of an asset than a negative at the Academy, which is located north of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“It’s not a normal civilian college. My high school was 80 percent female, but I knew I’d have to work hard and prove myself,” Hurtado, whose parents are Colombian, told FNL.
Both women say the years at the Academy have been character building.
“It takes courage. I think it’s hard to say something different than the group, and you’re in a place where guys feed off each other. Being able to have your own voice is the hardest, but if you’re credible as a woman and you’re not complaining all the time, then you’ll be respected for your merits, and gender falls away,” Hurtado said.
Pinto told FNL that there’s a great deal of respect for people’s personal beliefs at the Academy, and, “If you’re saying something worth listening to, your gender doesn’t matter.”
Lieutenant Colonel Olga Custodio, a name you’ve likely never heard before, holds the distinction of being the first Latina to complete the U.S. Air Force's Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT).
The USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947, under the National Security Act of 1947.
Custodio became the first female T-38 UPT flight instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base and later also the first female T-38 instructor pilot at Randolph A.F.B. The T-38 Talon is the Air Force’s two-seat, fighter jet training aircraft.
Custodio told Fox News Latino in 2012, that, “Everything I did was for me and my family. I was not out to prove anything. I didn’t even know I was the first anything. I only realized I was the first Latina military pilot when I had my first female student at pilot training. She was the first Latina to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.”
This year's graduating cadets tell FNL that being Latina was an aspect they felt not only comfortable with but also were happy to share with classmates.
"For the most part, being Latina is not something that gets brought up too much in an official capacity, if that makes sense, which is why I was so surprised to learn that I was selected to be a part of this unique experience,” Pinto said.
“In general, I share parts of my culture with my close friends," she added, "whether it's by exposing them to Latin music and dances or telenovelas. They love taking it all in as the experiences make them better-rounded."
Hurtado says she enjoys being part of the small group of Latinas who have gone through the Academy.
“We all really are the representation of a Latina woman to everyone else," Hurtado said. "Hopefully, we are able to foster a positive representation of Latinas.”
Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.