Generational resilience, Tech. Sgt. Pinaula overcomes adversity

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zeeshan Naeem
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Joining the military while dealing with personal loss can prove to be incredibly challenging, as Travis Pinaula knows all too well with the loss of his father, Tech. Sgt. Carl Cruz, a former U.S. Air Force firefighter. Despite his hardships, now Tech. Sgt. Pinaula, 801st Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers Training Squadron fire protection cadre, remains committed to symbolizing the spirit of dedication that runs deep within his family.

Born and raised in Guam and inspired by his father, Cruz joined the U.S. Air Force to provide a comfortable lifestyle for his wife and son, while striving to represent Guam in any way he was capable of.

“Growing up, I was wrapped up in the military lifestyle with my father serving,” Pinaula explained. “[He] was a well-respected firefighter who played a major role in my life. I was surrounded by the fire community at various bases, including Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and Yokota Air Base, Japan. The environment inspired me to start my own career as a firefighter.”

In February 2015, Cruz tragically passed away from cardiac arrest during an unaccompanied short tour at Osan AB, Republic of Korea. At the age of 18, Pinaula found himself with increased responsibilities, but was determined to support his family and take on a role of providing more for them in the wake of his father’s death.

“The news was shocking,” said Pinaula, then a high school senior. “Before I found out, out of nowhere I started breaking out with a reaction, my body was covered in hives, something about me was off. I vividly remember the morning I found out, waking up to my mother, aunt and grandmother in tears. All I saw was the chaplain and the wing commander at the front door. The commander asked, ‘Are you the son of Tech. Sgt. Cruz?’ I said yes. He replied with, ‘I regret to inform you that your father passed away last night.’ I was in complete shock.”

In a state of utter disbelief, Pinaula wanted to reject the information because the night before his father’s passing, they had talked, and everything seemed normal. However, after the tragic news, Pinaula and his family were forced to face new responsibilities while grieving the sudden loss.

The family found a stable support system with the fire community who provided aid during this time. Respect for Cruz was displayed with water salutes by crash trucks as the transport plane carrying his father arrived in Guam followed by an escort by various fire and police departments to the Guam Veterans Cemetery. These showcases assisted Pinaula and his family with coping with their loss.

For his own ambitions and in order to take care of his mother, Pinaula wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He started working toward his aspirations of becoming an Air Force firefighter, despite being challenged with very limited opportunities available.

“I wanted to join the Air Force as a firefighter to honor my father’s legacy,” Pinaula explained. “With only one recruiting office, my recruiter told me it was almost impossible for me to specifically get the fire protection [career field]. However, I got blessed with the opportunity three days later and was told the job wasn’t shipping until February 2016, but I still felt committed in my future career. I ended up swearing in on February 1st, my father’s birthday.”

During technical training school at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, a firefighter attending an advanced course recognized the various Guam stickers on Pinaula’s water bottle and struck up a conversation.

“I asked him if he knew my father,” Pinaula said. “He replied, ‘The only Cruz I knew was a funny guy that passed away in 2015.’ I then told him that was my father. Instantly, he recognized me as the kid who used to run around the fire station and told me that my father was a legend at Hickam. He offered me his support if I ever needed anything.”

These encounters continued as Pinaula connected with many others who knew and respected his father throughout his career. He aimed to embody the same commitment and passion that his father was known for, as the stories have been a source of motivation for Pinaula.

“The connections my father made have lasted through a generation,” said Pinaula. “I’d say a lot of it comes from us being from Guam, where we don’t care about if you’re local or not, we are always welcoming and friendly. Our culture is strong, and my father demonstrated those traits. Because of how he treated others, I’ve been able to receive mentorship and feel welcomed within the fire community; it just goes to show how influential my father was and how high of a standard I need to hold myself to.”

Pinaula won squadron firefighter of the year awards in 2018 and 2019. He credits his success to pursing his passion and maintaining a positive outlook despite adversity, while also aiming to set an example for his children and others going through difficult times, teaching them the value of resilience and the power of a supportive community.

“I couldn’t have reached where I am today without my friends, mentors and most importantly my family,” said Pinaula. “Whether it was obvious or subtle, their guidance has molded me into the person I am today, and for that I will forever be thankful to those who’ve played their part in helping me stay resilient.”