TSgt. Elena Barajas, U.S. Air Force, grew up near a military base in southern California. Her mother, a beautician, struggled to raise her daughter and a younger son on her own. It was a childhood that inspired Elena to yearn for adventure but ultimately seek security and steadiness for her own family.
After high school, a Marine friend convinced her to see a recruiter. Shortly after the Gulf War in 1993, much to the shock and surprise of her mother, she enlisted. Now stationed at Luke Air Force Base, she’s raising two daughters — Sofia, 8, and Sonia, 7 — with her husband, Master Sgt. Ramon Barajas, also stationed at Luke. With a couple of tours of duty under her belt, and the likelihood that she’ll serve next in Iraq or Afghanistan, she talks about a life of service to her country.
What prompted you to enlist?
I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere fast enough. I was stuck in Oceanside with the same friends and the same people, and I just got kind of bored. A friend told me, “You can take classes and the military will pay for it.”
You enlisted after leaving a job managing a video store. What was it like to go from that to being on base in Germany?
I met a lot of friends as soon as I got there, so they made it pretty easy. We went to places like Paris, Italy, Poland, Denmark.
Your parents divorced when you were small and your dad, a veteran, was in and out of your life. What do you know about him?
He was born in Mexico City and his family came to California. He served in Vietnam as a photographer. From what my mom told me, a lot of his photographs were published in Life magazine. My dad was with us for a little while when we were growing up. He passed away before I joined the military.
What are your memories of that time?
It was a very complicated relationship. When we were little, my dad became an alcoholic, so my mom went through a lot. She was never home. She worked a lot, so it was really my brother and I with baby sitters. I know that for my family, I want it to be a secure situation where I have a paycheck coming in, benefits and the things we didn’t have growing up.
Now you live with the knowledge that you may have to go away again for awhile, possibly to Iraq or Afghanistan. How do you deal with that as a mom?
I like the security for my kids. They see that they have their own room, beds and their own toys, and we explain to them that that is what the military and our paycheck is providing.
One thing that just popped into my mind is the Betty Crocker Easy Bake oven that I didn’t get [as a child]—but my girls were able to get that.
But surely they miss you!
Of course, they want mama home all the time, but they kind of balance it out in their minds.
Tell me about your job on base at Luke.
Right now, I am one of the flight chiefs for our mid-shift. We’ve got over 20 airmen on my flight and I am in charge of making sure that they are doing their job out there on patrol and that they are protecting the base. I arm up with the 9mm, I have my gun belt and handcuffs and all that. I have my own patrol car and go out there and do all of the law enforcement or security duties on the base.
How do your girls react when they see you with all of that equipment?
They don’t. We don’t like them to play with guns. They don’t have any squirt guns, toy guns; they don’t point anything as a gun to anyone else. My husband and I teamed up to where we don’t want that kind of violence or them going around going “bang, bang” like a lot of other kids do. So if we are telling them, “No, you can’t have these guns or these water guns,” then I don’t want them to see that I carry a gun.
What do you tell them about your job?
They have asked a couple times about the military and if I have shot anybody or if I’ve killed anybody, and I tell them, “no,” but I try to keep that part [of the job] away from them.
When you were on tour in Qatar, was there ever have a time that you were afraid?
We did have people trying to get on the base who weren’t supposed to. It could have been terrorists; we didn’t know. But we knew people were trying to get on our base, so we were on a lockdown.
Do you try to shield your girls from the news coverage of the war?
They are aware that it is out there, but we don’t really talk about it and they don’t really ask. They are not sitting there watching the news. When they are watching TV, I let them watch their “Hannah Montana.” But they are usually doing their homework.
If you could go back in time to that video store and give 21-year-old Elena career advice, what would you say?
[Go] into the medical career field or the communications career field. I would just do it a little bit differently, but I still would have come into the military.
Any advice for those thinking about enlisting?
Take your classes right when you get in the military. That is what I tell a lot of my younger troops. Sometimes I will set up a meeting with a counselor and get them into school. I’m like, “keep doing it, just keep going.”
What do you think your father would say if he knew about your career?
My mom said that he would be very proud. He would have approved. That makes me feel really good.
This interview was published July 1, 2008 by multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint.