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Latina Air Force colonel speaking up for victims of military sexual trauma

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Posted at 10:25 AM, Oct 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 10:25:06-04

SAN ANTONIO, TX. — As retired Air Force Colonel Lisa Carrington Firmin sits in her kitchen, she flips through a binder of poems she’s written. Every one of them was penned in the last year and a half. Every one of them she describes as “deeply personal.”

She was inspired to write poetry after the murder of Army specialist Vanessa Guillen. She said the brutal killing of this young woman made her realize she could no longer stay silent about the pain she endured while serving in the military.

For the first time in her life, she told her family she was a victim of sexual assault.

She’s never talked about these times, always preferring her announcements to family and friends to be career achievements. This time, she knew she had to speak up about the darkest parts of her past.

“The first few assignments I had, I cried in the shower, and no one ever knew,” said Carrington Firmin. “I just carried this stuff in here for years.”

After 30 years serving her country, she retired as the highest-ranking Latina in the Air Force.

“I have a Bronze Star from my time in combat,” she said.

She commanded forces in Iraq and was deployed around the world, moving 17 times within her career.

“You cannot be what you can't see,” said Carrington Firmin. “I am very stubborn, and in Spanish, we call that terca and I’m very terca, and I was determined to prove that I, as a Latina, as a woman, could succeed, be successful and hopefully pave the way for other women. So, I just jumped in and did everything I could.”

She never realized until recently why she pushed so hard to succeed. In training, she was sexually assaulted.

“He had a lot of rank. He was powerful,” she said of the man responsible. “He walked around there like he owned the place, and I was a nobody, and I was a Latina, and a nobody Latina, you know? I didn't say anything. Part of me even thought, was this part of the training?”

It wasn’t just the assault. Harassment was an all too common part of Carrington Firmin’s career.

“Sexual trauma: constantly being asked out, pursued, gestures made around me, sexual gestures, you know, and lewd jokes, lewd pictures,” she recalled.

One of the most disturbing incidents came during a class. Carrington Firmin walked by a slideshow and was horrified at what she saw.

“I remember walking by an auditorium where they were training the pilots, and they would show slides, presentations, and it's basically the academics of how to fly the particular aircraft, that fighter. I notice every fourth or fifth slide was a centerfold shot from Penthouse or Hustler magazine. And so I question that, and I said, ‘Why are you showing that? What does that have to do with the academics and learning?’ And they said, ‘Well, it's because the academics are so boring they had to keep the pilot's interest.’ And what was really disheartening to me is that they never change that process the entire three years of being stationed there. So, you can imagine I'm walking down the hall. They go through their training, then they come out and see me, you know, and it's just, it was quite disconcerting for me.”

That pain and discomfort fueled her to succeed.

“I really wanted to be a leader, and people started coming up to me, especially other Latinos, and saying, you know, ‘I've never seen anybody with your rank before. I can hopefully aspire to be like you one day,’ so that that drove me,” she said.

It was only when she retired that she realized a tougher job was beginning: her fight to heal and to help service members and veterans just like her.

“Because no one looked like me, I knew something was wrong. I knew that the military, my military, my branch, the Air Force, wasn't serious about Latinos because, Hispanics, I didn't see them. So, we went to offer support to them and help them.”

Carrington Firmin started the UTSA Top Scholar program, the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs and the Center for Military Affiliated Students at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She also joined the Hispanic Veterans Leadership Alliance, a group of Hispanic senior military leaders pushing for more equality and Hispanic leadership in the military.

Retired Brigadier General Ricardo Aponte is also part of the Alliance. He said the group is working closely with elected officials and members of Congress to get more recognition for Hispanic leadership and more diversity among military leadership.

“We had a three-star general during World War II. Richard ‘Pete’ Quesada that rose almost to the top, almost to the four-star level and did great during the war, but he was the only one during that war. And fast forward 80 years from there, and we're still in the same level of lack of success in the active duty. There is less than two percent of the general officers who are admirals that are Latinos. While we've been serving at an ever-increasing rate. Right now, the rate is close to 16% of the military is Hispanic, while less than 2% are general officers and admirals,” he explained.

Carrington Firmin wrote about disparities in the Air Force she observed two decades ago. She says the climate then is similar to the climate today.

“Just this month, the Air Force put out their second disparity review,” she said. “Their findings were very similar to what I found years ago.”

The newly released Air Force Disparity Review revealed minorities and women are under-represented in leadership.

“A key part of our ‘One Team, One Fight’ mantra is about ensuring our Airmen, Guardians, and Department of the Air Force civilians serve in an inclusive environment where they can achieve their full potential. This is a top priority for me and leaders across the Air and Space Forces,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.

The HVLA said it will keep pushing for this to become reality. They also hope the American public will recognize the achievements of Hispanic service members just as much as the achievements of other groups.

“Hispanics and other minorities are just as brave in the field, doing their missions, as any other member of the military,” said Aponte. “We love the United States just the same. And that sometimes is not recognized by the general public.”

“A lot of us as Latinos and we came in because we love our country, we love this country, and we want to serve, and we were taught to serve from when we were young,” said Carrington Firmin. “Our culture is like that. So, if you get Latinos in, you know they're going to work hard for you and do a great job.”

Real equity is what Carrington Firmin, her fellow HVLA members and those on her team at the University of San Antonio are working tirelessly to see.

To further lift up the voices of those marginalized by the military, Carrington Firmin is writing a book about military sexual trauma. She is opening up about her own trauma but also sharing the stories of other men and women who wish to be silent no more.

“With every poem I pen, every word I write, I feel like the death of a thousand cuts I lived while serving is slowly beginning to mend,” she said. “I’ll never totally forget of course what happened to me, but I can understand it more and channel it into the good I’m doing.”