An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Following the tune of hope: An Airman's journey

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs
Hope. It's a key virtue that can give people the drive to help them push through troubled times. Hope can propel them to strive to excel and achieve goals that may feel like nothing more than dreams. Many of these dreams became a reality for one young Airman, who overcame many difficulties in her homeland to make a life for herself here in the United States.

Life wasn't always easy for Senior Airman Kelly Andino, an intelligence analyst for the 403rd Operations Support Squadron/Intelligence, who grew up in the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, one of three major cities in the Central American country of Honduras.

Her father worked as an electrician for a major construction company in the city, while her mother took odd jobs to bring in extra income. When Andino was nine-year old, her father was injured in an accident on the job and was laid off from work. There were no laws that required businesses to provide benefits or compensation to injured workers, so her family struggled to make ends meet.

Despite their hardships, her parents insisted Andino continue her schooling rather than seek employment.

"My dad thought that it was important for me to get an education so that I could take care of myself once I was older," said Andino.

The school Andino attended had a strong emphasis on music education, and it was her parents' vision and hope to cultivate a love for music in her.

"This was something special that not a lot of people get to pursue, so they were hoping that this would be a gateway for me to get out of our situation," said Andino. "But fortunately I happened to love it, too."

In addition to regular academics, Andino learned basic music theory, how to read music, and also how to play basic instruments like the recorder. It wasn't until fourth grade that she was allowed to pick out a specific instrument to learn.

"We had our choice of instruments, but I was small, so the violin was probably the best option for me to learn how to play," said Andino. "I just kept up with it, and luckily I liked it."

Andino kept playing through elementary school until she transferred to high school, which began at seventh grade in San Pedro Sula. By this time, Andino had to attend two separate schools - one that focused on basic academics and one on music education. The latter was a very strict school with high, competitive standards.

"I basically lived off of scholarships in order to attend the school," said Andino. "We had to maintain excellent grades to have our monthly fees reimbursed. There was a lot of pressure and competition between students, but it was mostly friendly."

Her schooling was not only academically challenging, but physically as well. Andino left home early in the morning to walk across town to her high school, and then crossed to another part of town to the music school - which wasn't always very safe.

During the nineties, gang members were being deported back into Honduras, which drastically increased crime in the city of San Pedro Sula. This made just going to and from school a hazard.

"One time, going from my regular high school to the music school, one of my classmates and I were getting off the bus and we were chased by a gang - what they called 'maras,'" said Andino. "We had to run, and nobody would help us. There were guards who saw we were being chased, but nobody wanted to get involved. So, we finally ran into a grocery store and hid there until it was finally safe to leave."

It was due to the increasing dangers in her country that her parents wanted Andino to continue her education, so that hopefully she could have a better opportunity elsewhere.

"That's why my parents put so much work and dedication into having me go to that school, so I could get out of that situation instead of having to run for our lives a lot of times," said Andino.

Andino applied herself to her studies, studying and practicing sometimes 10 hours a day to perfect her skills at playing the violin.

"I learned at a very young age that you had to excel in order to achieve something great, something beyond what you could ever dream of," said Andino.

Her hard work, and that of her classmates, paid off. The school's orchestra performed at various public functions over the years, raising awareness for the arts and helping to bring in donations to the school, which helped keep it funded. Music students from the United States would often visit during the year, bringing with them extra supplies and instruments to provide for the school.

It wasn't until her senior year in high school, however, that Andino had her first exposure to the United States military - during a time of immense tragedy for her homeland.

Less than two weeks before Andino graduated from high school, Hurricane Mitch, the most powerful hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season, sloshed its way across Central America, dropping historic amounts of rainfall on Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. At the time it was the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history, resulting in nearly 11,000 deaths and more than 11,000 people missing. In all, the storm left nearly 2.7 million people homeless.

"We couldn't sleep because we didn't know how quickly the water would rise, or if one of the dams would break, so (my family and I) all took turns staying alert," said Andino.

Her family was fortunate. Their house didn't suffer much damage. After the storm the local government enlisted her and other members of the community to work at the international airport near San Pedro Sula to help with relief efforts.

"When I got there, I remember seeing aircraft and uniforms from different places, and all these people were working really hard," said Andino, with awe in her voice as she described the U.S. service members she saw. "It was almost like a magical moment to see all these people working so diligently to help, because we were so used to life being so hard. But when you get a little bit of help, you don't know how much of an impact that can have on your life."

She recalled some of the donations she received through the relief efforts, not just from the humanitarian side, but also the seemly inconsequential things that helped make a difference.

"You don't know how much something very small, like strings for instruments can mean when we can't even afford them for ourselves," said Andino. "Had I not had those instruments and supplies donated, then I would not have been able to play."

When she was finally able to return to school, she entered a music contest to compete for scholarships from various institutions. One of the judges on the panel happened to be a music professor from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. She and a handful of other competitors were awarded music scholarships, which finally allowed her to travel to the United States for her studies.

Coming to the United States permitted Andino to pursue other interests, some of which allowed her to make friends in the military and work around others in a military environment. While working for a physical therapy equipment company in Maryland in 2010, she and other employees visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and were able to interact with many of the service members who were recovering there.

Seeing these soldiers and realizing the sacrifices they made led her to wonder if there was more she could do to serve, and to show her appreciation for the opportunities she had been given.

"Once I realized that I had that freedom to dream, the freedom to choose, that's when I realized that I could join the military myself," she said. "I have so much to be grateful for - to this country - so I thought 'Why not?' Why shouldn't I join?"

Before enlisting in the Air Force Reserve, Andino returned to college to finish her degree and finally received her Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance in May 2012.

Later that year, during the interview process for joining the 403rd Wing, Andino made a startling discovery. While looking online at the history of the 403rd, she learned that one of the missions supported by the 815th Airlift Squadron was a humanitarian relief effort to Honduras during the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Andino was shocked.

"To see how it was all coming back full-circle, from that critical year in my life to this new phase of my life starting with the military - it just left me speechless," said Andino.

Captain Brian Houston, 403rd OSS/IN security manager and Andino's supervisor, remarked that even though the 815th Airlift Squadon is scheduled to close its final chapter in Air Force history with its upcoming inactivation, the squadron helped launch a new chapter in one Airman's life.

"It's amazing how this young girl, whose first experience with American military and American aircraft, is hired by the same wing where this squadron operates almost 15 years later," said Houston. "What a wonderful ending story for a unit that's going away - bringing in this new opportunity for her."

Even though playing the violin is still a joy for her, she is grateful that it gave her the opportunity to come to the United States and pursue other hopes and dreams - one of which was joining the military.

While hope may be one lesson she took away from her experiences, another one she learned through the Air Force was flexibility.

"Had I not met people in the military, or had I not visited with those troops in Walter Reed, I wouldn't be here in the Air Force today," she said. "A young girl from a third-world country may never dream of seeing herself in this uniform - that just doesn't happen. What this all taught me is to stay hopeful and stay flexible with life so that, if everything is in tune and all of your tools and skills are in place, you can take on whatever battles may come your way."