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Pride and Prejudice, Patriotism and Perseverance

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. MarcusLaird
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command


It’s Snowing in Flushing

Hosanna “Poli” Policarpio was born on Guam. Her early childhood was filled with excursions to the beach with her Lolo (grandfather), who was a merchant mariner. Lolo taught her to swim in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. When she was six, she and her family moved to Flushing, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City. Flushing was a far cry from Guam, with a bustling variety of food stalls from every corner of the world lining its streets and vibrant mosaics of immigrant communities.

Against the diverse backdrop of New York City, Policarpio realized she was different, even among her own extended family. Her aunts and mother were distressed by her obsession with Legos, calling her a tomboy. Even at a young age, she felt the sting of the insult and began to wall herself off from her family. She grew more distant from her parents, as they worked long hours at multiple jobs to provide her opportunities in their new home. During these years, her Lola (grandmother) became the central figure in her life.

Lola taught Policarpio assertiveness and independence. Her parents divorced when she was 12 and Policarpio leaned on Lola’s support in all things, learning emotional intelligence and resilience. She easily connected with others and thrived in school. Her classmates described her as quirky, funny, friendly, and outgoing. In spite of a network of friends across identities and interests, she still couldn’t quite connect with herself. As she turned 13, she noticed that the character of her friendships was changing. She saw a girl at church as more than a friend, her first crush even.

Her father noticed her changing as well and began to take steps to reign in his independent daughter. Policarpio was having none of it. To this day, more than twenty years later, the security guards at her high school remember the independent Filipina girl who ran away from school so many times. The summer after her freshman year in high school, he sent Policarpio to the Philippines so that she could observe traditional gender roles. There, loosely supervised by extended family and knee deep in the monsoon rains in central Manila, Policarpio found the Filipino Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) community. Her father’s plans had backfired. For large parts of her remaining high school career, Policarpio would be grounded and kept from socializing.

On a clear Tuesday morning during her senior year, Policarpio said goodbye to Lola and headed to school to begin a rite of passage for so many college bound students: taking the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT). As the test concluded, a frantic teacher entered the room. Every television was turned on. Less than ten miles away, in Lower Manhattan, America was under attack. Policarpio realized that Lola was supposed to go into the city that morning to sort out her late husband’s pension at the Immigration Services Office in the World Trade Center. Through tears, she tried to reach her father at work on his pager. Phone lines were flooded beyond capacity with calls.

Like so many New Yorkers, Policarpio joined those who had experienced a near miss on 9/11. The subway train Lola was riding broke down somewhere between Queens and Manhattan, leaving Lola trapped, but out of harm’s way. Facing down the possibility of losing the most foundational adult in her life, Policarpio became an adult that day. As the next day dawned, ashes from the collapsed buildings rained down on Flushing like a macabre snow and Policarpio awakened in a different country with an awareness of how precious and fleeting life is.


In 2002, Policarpio entered Baruch College as a freshman on a five-year full ride scholarship for both her undergraduate and graduate education. She majored in Accounting with plans to go on to Baruch’s Master of Business Administration program. Baruch is in Manhattan, only a few blocks over from the Flatiron Building, with its iconic triangular shape. It’s only two and a half miles from the site of the World Trade Center.

At Baruch, Policarpio joined an Asian American and Pacific Islander sorority. There, she began to feel comfortable in her own skin. Over the course of her year at Baruch, she realized she wasn’t following her own dreams, but those of her father. With a visceral reminder of her own mortality only a short walk away, Policarpio decided to set about to make an impact on other people’s lives. After her freshman year at Baruch, she enlisted in the Army, much to the disappointment of her father, and shipped off to Basic Training in October of 2003.

Becoming a Soldier was not in her life plan. Policarpio had never as much as been in the woods, much less fired a weapon. What she did have, however, was the ability to connect with her fellow recruits. Her battle buddies helped her to learn how to thrive as a Soldier. Policarpio took to Army life easily, earning marksmanship qualifications for both the M-4 and M-16. Upon graduation, she shipped off to Advanced Individual Training to become a Signals Intelligence Analyst. Her first operational assignment was to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. While at Schofield, she reentered college, this time studying International Relations.

Within a year, Policarpio deployed to Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq with the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade from Fort Shafter, Hawaii. 2005 saw escalating sectarian violence. As a Soldier, Poli found herself working twelve-hour shifts, occasionally going outside of the wire. She provided physical security for Iraqi polling stations during the country’s elections, meeting locals and encouraging women at polling places. Other times, she would provide physical security outside the Dining Facility or at security checkpoints across Camp Victory. As a woman, she was frequently asked to be on the front line, conducting security screenings for incoming local national female visitors. In her off time, she continued to work on her degree. Often, during live seminars, explosions from rockets and improvised explosive devices could be heard in the background, much to the distress of her professors and classmates back stateside. Still, she persisted.

During her frequent trips outside of the wire, Policarpio would often be paired with another Filipina American Soldier, Sgt. Myla Maravillosa, who was an Army Reservist and an interrogator. While riding in convoys and performing guard duties, they bonded over their shared culture, frequently critiquing the food in the Dining Facility. On December 24, 2005, Maravillosa was killed outside of Al Hawijah, Iraq when the Humvee she was riding in was attacked with rocket propelled grenades. Policarpio’s world shattered. Once again, she built up emotional walls internally. A part of her had died losing someone with whom she had shared so much.

Her battalion’s leadership tried to get the Soldiers closest to Maravillosa to talk to forward deployed mental health professionals. To Policarpio it felt like “talking to a school counselor with minimal understanding of post-traumatic stress.” Her one solace were the Soldiers she worked alongside daily. Eventually, she made friends among her coworkers from Fort Shafter. From 1994 through 2011, under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, LGBTQ+ servicemembers had ways of finding one another. As the deployment wore on, she and her coworkers made plans for after their deployment. A few referenced hanging out at gay bars in Waikiki. Once again, Policarpio had found her community.

Upon returning to Hawaii from Iraq, Policarpio’s parents and Lola visited her in Hawaii. There, standing with her battle buddies from Iraq, she told her family “So… I’m gay. Nothing changes and I still love you guys.” Her father was silent. Her mother locked herself in the bathroom crying for hours. Lola, true to form, pondered this revelation before telling her “I’ve known you your whole life and I still love you,” before walking into the kitchen to make a huge dinner for Policarpio and her friends.

The small community of LGBTQ+ Soldiers from Fort Shafter and Schofield Barracks began to connect with the larger underground LGBTQ+ military community across Hawaii. Fridays were spent at the bars in Waikiki as a group of friends. Policarpio’s coming out to her family was a radical act of self-acceptance. It helped her to embrace herself fully, enabling her to have more meaningful conversations with mental health professionals and start to manage her post-traumatic stress.

Unfortunately, the cohesion within the unit she deployed with from Fort Shafter began to erode. Two of the gay men in her circle of friends had become targets by their fellow Soldiers. There was palpable and growing animosity toward the two within their unit. The group began avoiding hanging out on Fridays. Policarpio felt betrayed by her former deployed family members who were bullying her friends. Tensions continued to escalate for two months, culminating with one of her gay friends’ cars getting destroyed by his tormentors.

The bullies made no secret of their motivations. However, the paradox of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy meant that filing a police report would mean answering questions on why they were being targeted. There were two choices: continue to endure escalating behavior or tell the truth and get kicked out of the Army. Policarpio and her friends chose the second option, to sacrifice her career to protect her family of choice. Policarpio and three of her gay male friends, all intelligence analysts at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were administratively separated from the Army. Their deployed family was scattered to the four winds.

Bahala Na

In Filipino culture, there is a concept called bahala na. It does not have a direct translation into English but means something between determination in the face of uncertainty and whatever happens, happens. It can be a mixture of fatalism and faith. Elder family members will often sarcastically to children who are a little too independent. The two words: bahala na do a lot of work.

After having spent her entire adult life in college and then the Army, Policarpio found herself without a job. With only three years of experience, she fell short of the minimum five years of experience required by so many entry level positions. She stayed in Hawaii, looking for a job for a while and watching her savings deplete. Finally, she bought a one-way ticket to Washington, DC on the advice of her friends about bountiful opportunities to become a defense contractor.

Policarpio left Hawaii with just two suitcases. She made contact with two gay Sailors that were friends of friends living in DC. She crashed on their couch in a tiny studio in Arlington, Virginia near the Pentagon. She spent two weeks scouring the internet for jobs, applying and interviewing. Of course, not completing a full enlistment was a red flag to some hiring managers. Finally, after two weeks of persistence, she was asked to meet for a lunch interview. When she arrived at her interview, she was shocked to learn that she would be having lunch with both the Vice President and the CEO of the contractor with which she was interviewing. She started work the next day.

Between 2008 and 2010, Policarpio worked a wide range of jobs as a defense contractor. In 2010, she returned to Iraq, this time wearing the de facto defense contractor uniform of tactical khakis cargo pants and a polo shirt. She was still driven to make a difference, working in the Terror Finance Cell in the Joint Intelligence Operations Center at Camp Slayer in Iraq. In the evenings, the Dining Facilities blared news from back in the United States. The debate to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was prominently featured on Armed Forces Network and in Stars and Stripes. On December 22, 2010, President Obama signed the legislation to begin the process of ending the policy, which finally occurred on September 20, 2011.

Between 2011 and 2013, Policarpio finished two college degrees while holding down three jobs as a chef. Her passion for food and journey through the culinary industry were inspired by Lola’s cooking during her childhood. In 2014, Policarpio began splitting her time between deployments and living at Lake Tahoe. After the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, she went to recruiting center twice in Reno. Both times, recruiters looked at her DD-214 with its discharge narrative of homosexual conduct and told her reenlistment would be too complicated. None of the Army recruiters really knew how to handle someone with that reenlistment code wanting to return, nor did they follow up.

In the spring of 2014, Policarpio took a job with the Army in Kuwait. It was her first deployment as a Tagalog linguist. There, she was paired with Cpl. Brittany Ramos, an Army Human Intelligence specialist to vet third country nationals working on the base. For 12 hours a day, Poli would sit next to Ramos interviewing contractors continuously for six months. For months, they worked this way, never discussing anything about their personal lives until their deployments were nearly at an end. To this day, Brittany, now her wife, gives Policarpio grief about spilling coffee on herself when they first met.

Finding the Way

In 2014, the Air Force Reserve’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Enterprise was undergoing a phase of explosive growth, standing up a new squadron every 39 days on average. Command teams scoured their networks looking for qualified people. In October of 2014, while enjoying some down time between deployments in Lake Tahoe, Policarpio saw a call from a strange number in Omaha, Nebraska. Her first instinct was to dump it into voicemail, but for some reason she didn’t.

Lieutenant Col. Michael Sieg had made a bet on cold calling a former Army SIGINT Analysts that had been recommended to him by a colleague. He led with something like, “I’ve heard so much about you and want you to come to Offutt to join my new unit.” Policarpio made her way to an Air Force Reserve recruiter and reenlisted in January of 2015 at Beale Air Force Base, California. Paperwork in hand, she immediately left Beale and began driving toward Offutt.

As she and a friend journeyed toward Nebraska in her overloaded car, a blizzard swept across a wide swathe of the country. Determined to get back in uniform, they continued cautiously, stopping at the Nebraska state line for a photo with a sign that read, “NEBRASKA… the good life.” The snow covered the entire countryside like a blank canvas with a single path to Offutt.

The 49th Intelligence Squadron different. At first, Policarpio found the Air Force Reserve’s culture of openness strange, even off-putting compared to her experience in the Army in 2008. Her squadron mates were curious about the former Soldier. Everyone seemed comfortable with openly talking about their families. Even in a culture of acceptance and genuine interest in her life, Policarpio found it harder than she thought to be open.

After a few months, Policarpio realized the change in the military’s culture since 2008 was permanent. She began opening up to her fellow Airmen. Today, Master Sgt. Hosanna Policarpio, serves as her unit’s operations superintendent, leveraging her technical skills and continuing to build a culture of acceptance as the most authentic version of herself. The Army had helped her to learn and grow as a person, but the Air Force Reserve accepted her as a whole person.