EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
In May 2015, Angela Martinez left her home and her family in South Korea and headed to the U.S. for good, or so she thought. At the time she wasn’t sure what the future held but had no idea she would be back in the country as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
Today, Martinez is the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron non-commissioned officer in charge of material control at Eielson and recently returned from a temporary duty assignment to South Korea where she served as an interpreter for the 354th CES and mission partners from the Republic of Korea Air Force, or ROKAF.
The opportunity to serve as an interpreter was unexpected and came to her after her very first introduction to the squadron.
“I arrived at Eielson in 2018, and in one of our meetings I was asked to give a five-minute brief about myself,” Martinez recalled. “I shared that I grew up in South Korea and our operations commander asked if I could speak Hangul.”
A few months after that first meeting Martinez was approached by her operations commander who asked if she was interested in being an interpreter.
“I was hesitant,” she said. “I didn’t learn to speak Korean until I was older and felt a little self-conscious and nervous about having to translate for an entire civil engineer team.”
She pushed through and got on a plane to South Korea to assist with a Base Resiliency Exercise as part of the planning team along with Airmen from Eielson’s fire department, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Emergency Management and Rapid Airfield Damage Repair team.
The exercise was designed to bring Eielson engineers and their ROK counterparts together to practice contingency operations. Coincidentally, it was also a chance for Martinez to come back home after being away for some time.
“I remember we were at the airport in Seoul, waiting for our connecting flight and I just was overwhelmed with happiness, just being able to hear everyone speaking Korean and being able to eat the food. It was great!” she said. “It definitely felt like home!”
Being home was thrilling but the work began almost immediately and it was much more challenging than she expected.
“[Being an interpreter] was hard work,” Martinez stressed. “I was in the middle of everything—large briefings, meetings and even during meals. I remember my food would sometimes get cold when we were at lunch because I was pulled in to translate.”
One of Martinez’s teammates in Korea was Tech. Sgt. Kristopher Jaime, then 607th Materiel Maintenance Squadron fire emergency services program manager at Gimhae Air Base, South Korea, who acknowledged Martinez’s ability to speak Korean was instrumental to the success of the joint military exercise.
“She ensured the whole BRE, from planning all the way through execution, went off without a hitch,” Jaime said. “Her professionalism was top notch, yet kept the conversation lighthearted and friendly. We couldn’t have been as successful without her.”
While with the team, Martinez’s doubts resurfaced when asked to translate the very technical terms commonly used by both services, a sentiment she shares with other interpreters.
“Translating our normal, everyday conversation is very different from translating the very technical language used when planning and organizing a big project like that,” she said. “I don’t use those words often or at all when speaking Korean and that meant there were many times when it took me some time to remember or figure out a Korean term or phrase.”
Challenges aside, Martinez said the joys of being back home and sharing her culture with other Airmen makes it all worth it.
“My favorite thing about Korea is the culture,” she said. “For people visiting for the first time I encourage them to get out and see things, experience the culture, try the local foods, take a class and try to learn the language.”