Panama native fulfills dream of becoming pilot

Senior Airman Jonathan Martinez-Paez, shown in a childhood photo, attended ROTC in college with the hopes of becoming an Air Force officer after graduation. (Courtesy photo)

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff Writer

Senior Airman Jonathan Martinez-Paez said his parents fled crisis-stricken Panama for the United States in the 1980s seeking safety and opportunity for their two young boys. They left behind extended family, a home and a business.

Assigned to the administration support group at Cannon Air Force Base, Martinez-Paez, 27, said his parents’ sacrifice instilled in him a drive to succeed.

“I think I saw enough to know what I had to do as a young kid growing up to pay back (what my parents did) for me and my brother,” he said.

A successful software developer before he enlisted in the Air Force in 2004, Martinez-Paez was accepted into Officer Training School and aviator training in March.

His acceptance into the programs allows Martinez-Paez to combine his love for his adopted country and a burning desire to fly.

“I was young but I saw enough as a kid,” said Martinez-Paez, who came to the United States when he was 7. “I probably saw a little more than I needed to. This country’s given me everything. I want to give something back.”

He molded his goals to that end, joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college to gain an officer’s commission.

He was told his junior year he would not be commissioned because his citizenship was still five years away.

Switching gears, he worked as a software developer after college, a career Martinez-Paez said just wasn’t enough.

“I was just missing something the whole time I was doing it,” he said.

According to an Air Force personnel spokesperson, a little more than 2,000 of the more than 12,000 naturalized citizens who serve in the Air Force are officers.

Once naturalized, Martinez-Paez took an entry test to Officer Training School, but failed because of low verbal scores.

“Because of so many obstacles, for a moment I thought it was maybe not meant to be, but that wasn’t the attitude I wanted to have about it,” he said.

Determined, he buckled down and studied.

On his second, and last chance, he passed.

There is still work to be done, but he feels he has already fulfilled some of the dreams his parents brought to this country.

“(My parents) are really proud of me. … (Leaving their homeland) — it was a sacrifice that pretty much paid off and they’re just proud of me and my brother.”

— The Cannon Mach Meter contributed to this report