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A Conversation with Chief Master Sergeant Luis Magaña

Hispanic Heritage Month Feature

A Conversation with Chief Master Sergeant Luis Magaña

Courtesy Graphic

Courtesy Graphic


As Hispanic Heritage Month 2021 comes to a close, I interviewed a Team Vandenberg senior enlisted leader, Chief Master Sergeant Luis Magaña. He immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a teen, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after high school, became a U.S. citizen and served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chief Magaña currently serves as the 30th Medical Group Superintendent at Vandenberg Space Force Base. His personal and professional journey aligned with this year’s theme, “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope,” challenging us to envision a great future knowing that our hope and resilience can lead us there.

The Past is Present
Who were some of the greatest influences in your life?

My Mom is perhaps the hardest working woman I know. From cleaning homes to starting her own small business and still making a difference. My Dad is so disciplined and committed. He is never late. He completes things with perfection. Having a little of both of them is good for me.

Although I was born in a Michoacan Mexico town, I consider Indio my hometown.  I will never forget what happened several years ago when I was visiting family in Indio. I heard my last name called out in a store. It was my recruiter! He remembered me. The Sergeant was retired, but when I updated him on my life and career, he expressed how proud he was of me. That meant a lot. Joining the Air Force is the best professional choice I’ve ever made.

Celebrating a Colorful Heritage
We are currently celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. What do you appreciate about your culture and the experiences it offered you?

We’re passionate people. We have strong beliefs, try to stay positive, and love to celebrate successes. We are family-oriented, which helped me build my values and I thank my parents for that. I do what I do every day and I am who I am for my wife, Karina, and my two boys, Christopher and Isaiah. I am most grateful for them. My cultural experiences offered me a different vision and view of how things work. I think that different perspectives help build a better and more colorful force and military heritage.

What’s Okra?
What are some life experiences before joining the Air Force that you’d like to share?

I never thought I would live in the United States, join the military or ever travel the world. After arriving from Mexico, I began high school, did not speak English and it was tough to adapt to a new culture and environment. I came to work and found odd jobs everywhere I could, like swap meets to help sell sweatshirts and car stuff. Then I was offered agricultural work, on an okra farm. I remember asking, “What’s okra?” Working on a farm…now, that was hard work!  I appreciate the good work ethic I learned from my parents. Today, I still appreciate hard work, but I work hard differently for the Air Force and Space Force. I work for a great commander and partner, Col. Jessica Spitler, in a great organization, which makes this the best job!

A New Plan and a New Path
Did you have a plan for after high school?

School was always easy for me and I was one of the top students. My goal was to go to college, but the residency and citizenship process was long. Even though I was accepted to several colleges, I couldn’t continue that path at that time. So I needed a different plan and took a different path.

From Semper Fi to Aim High!
When did you decide to join the military?

One of my best friends, now my brother-in-law was a Marine. He suggested I check out the military. The Marine recruiter loved me and my ASVAB scores [he says with a cheerful laugh], but another friend recommended the Air Force. The Air Force recruiters said they could help with the immigration paperwork process so I could go to school and eventually become a U.S. citizen. After hearing that, I was all in! I wanted to make a difference to others and give back to this country.

The Wingmen Swoop in!
What was basic training like for you?

It was a real struggle. Challenging. There, I learned the true meaning of a Wingman. I was good at learning, remembering information and teaching, so I could help others, but I was still learning the English language. The first time I got yelled at, I didn’t know what was being said to me. I didn’t know why we were picking up and putting down our suitcases repeatedly while being yelled at by the TI. I still remember that first day lined up outside the bus. Throughout training, I had to translate all of the material so I could understand it and one day it just clicked. It was a tough start and I felt the gap, but later felt fully embraced by my team. The concept of a Wingman and living that so we could all succeed, is why I did. You never know the challenges people are experiencing like separation from family, language and learning challenges, or education limitations, but it’s important to think about what it’s like to be in their shoes. It helps to promote better Airmanship when we not only treat others like we’d like to be treated, but also treat them like they’d like to be treated.

It all Started with Structures!
How did you decide on your career path?

I arrived to MEPS on Sept. 10, 2001 and I finalized my paperwork right before the 9/11 attacks. I was needed at the time in the Civil Engineer career field. I had a six-year career in CE structures and CE taught me how to lead, I’m grateful for that experience. It helped me understand the line side and that it is important to be aware of the perspectives of all people. When I was forced to cross-train, I was paired with medical bioenvironmental engineering and I’ve loved it ever since!

Strength is in Diversity, Not Always in Similarities
What is the benefit of a diverse force?

Diversity strengthens organizations. We all have different values and perspectives, unique things we bring to the table. But our Air Force core values bring all the differences together in order for us to meet the big goal. It helps us in our decision-making. We should seek opportunities to improve progress, keep moving forward and not stay stagnant. Diversity is a great strength of our country and for our military.

Taking Care of the Total Force
What advice do you have for leaders and emerging leaders?

I have the same high expectations of others as I have for myself. Build trust. Encourage dialogue.

Sometimes we have to make decisions that challenge someone’s point of view, but it’s the best decision for the Force. Help our Airmen understand the bigger operational picture and engage with people to let them know that what they do every day matters and helps support the mission.

Make yourself available for our Total Force (Airmen, Guardians, and Civilians). It’s no longer enough to be compassionate, we really need to be empathetic. People are craving connection and those struggling, need their Wingmen around them, it’s not a one-person job, there’s a community of First Sergeants, mental health services, Chaplains, and other resources to support. Employ those available tools.

Chief Magaña shared many stories of service, sacrifice, leadership, mentorship and family. I thought I would sum up my takeaways of the remainder of our conversation using the acrostic “HOPE” to complement this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month theme.

umor: There will be tough times in life. There will be obstacles before us, but it’s important to remember to maintain a sense of humor. Try to laugh at yourself. After all, they say laughing is good for your health!

pportunity: Make the most of opportunities and look for ways to create opportunities for yourself and for others, which may not have previously existed. Make your own path if you need to. There are people around to help.

erseverance: Positivity sets the tone. The road may not always be easy and the waters we are navigating through may be rough at times, but try to remain hopeful. There is a saying, “Despues de la tempestad, llega la calma,” meaning, “after the storm, comes the calm.” We will all experience storms in life and it is important to remember even in the midst of a storm, that there will be a calm.

nthusiasm: Enthusiasm and gratitude have a symbiotic relationship. Choosing to be grateful, to keep going, to keep trying makes a difference. You could be helping someone else without even knowing.