Face of Defense: Immigrant Airman Forges Intercultural Friendships
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan --
An intelligence analyst by day and cultural envoy by night, Air Force Master Sgt. Cesar “Vinny” Ventura grew up as one of four bilingual siblings in a Hispanic immigrant family in Los Angeles, California.
"Mijo, can you come tell me what they're saying to me?" his mom would ask in Spanish.
His parents didn't speak English, so they relied on Vinny and his brothers to translate for them while running errands around town.
"Sí," he'd respond. "They said, 'Thank you!'"
Those trips around town taught him the importance of understanding intercultural communication. He spent a lot of time exploring comics and graphic novels for the easy reading and eventually discovered anime in high school.
"I liked it [anime] so much I wanted to watch it without the subtitles, so I just learned Japanese," he said. "Today, every country I visit, I learn the basics of their language and culture, so I can really connect with them according to their communication preferences."
Ventura said his whole life, from his childhood in Los Angeles to a brief stint in the Navy from 1997-2001, and then enlisting in the Air Force in 2003, prepared him for his assignment here. He's built partnerships with complete strangers, many of whom have become like family.
He now serves as a vertical inspections planner with the 35th Fighter Wing's inspector general's office. In this capacity, he organizes, trains and oversees the wing inspector general's inspection team. It's not this job, though, that earned him respect among his Japanese counterparts.
The Misawa veteran dedicated hundreds of hours forging friendships and strengthening the U.S.-Japan security alliance over the past four years with airmen with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s 3rd Air Wing, earning him the Special Class Award from the JASDF Area Defense Command, Dec. 13.
"His contributions to our bilateral relationship far exceed anything Misawa-specific-he's made an impact on the entirety of the Area Defense Command and our nation," said JASDF Warrant Officer Tsuyoshi Endo, former 6th Air Defense Missile Group chief and former Senior Noncommissioned Officer Association president.
From planning bilateral dining-outs and tug-of-war competitions to helping JASDF Airmen win English language competitions in Tokyo, Ventura's deep understanding of his host nation's language and culture cemented relationships and netted him two lifelong friends.
Building a Family
"Vinny-san is like family to me," said JASDF Warrant Officer Junji Miura, the 3rd Air Wing command chief. "He's part of our inner circle. He always tells us, 'If you ever need anything, just ask,' and that same sentiment is absolutely true for us. He can call us at any time, day or night, and we'll be there for him."
Miura and Endo hold Ventura in such high regard he's met their spouses, and their spouses have met his wife. He's even cooked his favorite Italian dish for them.
"It was delicious!" Miura said. "He really can cook!"
The two warrant officers aren't the only Japanese he's developed close friendships with at Misawa. There are many similar stories, all leading back to his dedication to enhancing quality of life initiatives and resiliency for airmen.
"I like to see and experience other countries’ militaries and how they operate," he explained. "Learning their language is a key part to that experience. My intelligence analyst training made it easier and helped me better decipher the intricacies of each language I've encountered."
Ventura likened it to self-aid buddy care training where airmen learn basic medical combat survival skills.
"We do it so often in preparation for the real deal that now it just comes so natural," he said. "Language is the same way. When it comes to understanding language and culture, you really can't have one without the other; it's better for both sides if we embrace both as one."
Not only can Ventura speak Japanese fluently, but he's also learned some 400 of the roughly 1,200 kanji characters in the Japanese writing system.
"I pick up something new every time I go off base or interact with my Japanese friends," he said.
One friend, Noriko Ohtani, who works in the U.S. Relations Section at the 3rd Air Wing, said Vinny is her 911 emergency contact, "Always!"
"When I first came to Misawa, I had never worked with the Ministry of Defense," she said. "It scared me, really, honestly, but after talking with Vinny-san, he helped me realize I didn't need to be scared. I felt comfortable talking with other military members from that day forward."
Thanks to Ventura, Ohtani said, she's been successful in her position here and been able to build really strong relations with other U.S. service members.
"I'm just so thankful we met," she added.
With a tearful grin, Endo echoed Ohtani's sentiment saying, "I'm super, super, super … appreciative of everything Vinny-san has done for me, my family and my airmen. Even after I retire next month, and he moves on to his next assignment, I would like to keep this relationship going. I can't imagine a world where we're no longer friends."
Finding it hard to say the right words, Miura gestures at Endo signaling he agrees, "He's like family."