When Senior Airman (SRA) Rece Khamalah - a member of the 122nd Fighter Wing, Indiana Air National Guard - walked across the stage to accept the "Airman of the Year" award on a cold December day in 2013, she flashed her trademark smile. The smile, so much a part of who Rece is, reflects her determined focus, optimism and enthusiasm. After the ceremony I had the opportunity to talk with Rece and discovered being honored with the Airman of the Year award is a cornerstone in a life journey that continues to unfold.
Rece was born in Nairobi, Kenya in November 1987, the daughter of Joseph and Irene Khamalah. Joseph came from a large family of Kenyan farmers, and Irene's family's interest is in business and politics. The family emigrated from Kenya to Canada in 1990 where Rece's father, Joseph, was granted a scholarship to study at the university and where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees, which included a doctoral degree. After earning his doctorate the family immigrated to the United States. Joseph is currently the Assistant Dean of Business at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, and Irene, according to Rece, is "the most amazing stay-at-home mother." It comes as no surprise that for Rece, sister Laurine and brother William, college was not an option. In Kenya there is no public school system to speak of and few options for an education. The family's journey has presented a unique opportunity not to be wasted and one Rece has enthusiastically embraced.
I talked with Rece about what has inspired her in her work with the 122nd Fighter Wing. The list of those who have encouraged and mentored her was expansive, but two conversations stood out for her as pivotal in her career path. The first was a conversation she had early in her career with Major Christian Shue. Major Shue encouraged Rece to pursue medical training through the United States Air Force, as well as to think about applying to medical school. Rece also had the good fortune to speak with the State Air Surgeon, Colonel William Pond, (a former member of the 122nd Fighter Wing) who inspired her to think big, an M.D. or D.O degree, which would put her on track to become an officer and Flight Surgeon. Flight Surgeons are primarily responsible for the medical evaluation, certification and treatment of military aviation personnel. Rece recalls, "He (Colonel Pond) is such an inspiration, he always remembered my name and encouraged me. When I get to that level I want to treat people in that same way."
As our conversation continued, Rece talked about a goal she has had and has tried several times to reach. A goal that only recently was realized - becoming a United States citizen. In some ways this goal was the most challenging to reach so far. Even serving honorably as a U.S. service member did not smooth or guarantee the path to citizenship. With the hard deadline of her enlistment expiring and not being able to reenlist without citizenship time was slipping away. Rece described the process as "daunting." However, she would not give up. With typical Khamalah fervor – and the help of Senior Master Sergeant Eric Butler, 122nd Fighter Wing Manpower and Personnel Flight Chief, together they overcame the maize of paperwork and slowed or stalled processing to secure an opportunity to take the citizenship test. On January 13, 2013 Rece Khamalah passed her test and is currently awaiting the official ceremony celebrating her citizenship.
As we finished our conversation Rece told me the credit for her love of learning and helping others was instilled in her by her parents, both of whom will always be most dear to her heart. I walked away inspired by the dreams of a young woman with the potential, the drive and the enthusiasm to make a difference in all of our lives. I will not be surprised if one day we hear of Dr. Rece Khamalah doing great things. As a natural born citizen I am grateful bright young minds aspire to become United States citizens as we are all the better for it.
This is by no means the end of the story, on January 21st State Command Chief Master Sergeant James Salway II, announced that Senior Airman Khamalah was named "Airman of the Year" for the entire state of Indiana. She will move on to compete against the winners of the same honor from the rest of the States in our Nation.