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An eye-opening experience: one Airmen’s journey comes full circle

By Ashley Palacios, 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | May 19, 2017


Second Lieutenant Rodrigo Vener, 359th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Aerospace and Operational Physiology Training Unit physiologist, always knew he wanted to join the military. In high school he joined a Marines Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, and when he graduated he signed up to be a Navy linguist.  


But Vener’s dad was growing worried about his son who was getting himself into trouble.


“At this point in my life, I wasn’t hanging out with the right people,” Vener said. “It was June and I wasn’t scheduled to leave with the Navy until October.”


Vener’s dad issued an ultimatum that would forever change his son’s life.


“He told me I had better make some changes in my life or I was going to end up in jail or dead like a lot of people I knew at the time,” said Vener. “He told me to go talk to the Air Force and see if they could take me sooner.”


A few days later, Vener found himself on a bus headed from his home in Houston to Lackland Air Force Base for Basic Military Training. When he arrived, he was allowed a 20 second phone call to his family. Vener received some shocking news on that phone call.


Thinking he would never get into college, Vener only applied to one school. During their short time on the phone, Vener’s dad told him he had been accepted into college with a full scholarship but had thrown the letter away since Vener was now at BMT and couldn’t accept the scholarship.


“I never regretted my choice to join the Air Force or even the fact that I wasn’t able to take that full scholarship because it probably would have given me more opportunity to fall back into my old lifestyle,” Vener said.


After BMT, Vener went to the now closed Brooks Air Force Base for the Aerospace Physiology Apprentice Course where he learned an important lesson about his new job as an aerospace technician.


“When I showed up, I had two gold teeth from my old days and the chief saw my gold teeth from down the hallway and called me over,” Vener said.


The chief proceeded to explain what Vener’s new job was all about.


“He told me, ‘You’re going to be a platform instructor. You’re going to be in front of all sorts of distinguished visitors like senators, congressmen and dignitaries. We can’t have you standing in front of these people representing Aerospace Physiology with all that gold in your mouth.’”


After this conversation, Vener found himself on his way to the dental clinic where they promptly removed his gold teeth.


“They used a chisel and a hammer and took them out,” Vener said. “It was a real eye-opener about what this career field is and does, and I was going to do whatever it took to graduate. I wasn’t going back home and I wasn’t going to leave without a certificate. The only place I could go was up, so if this is what it took, then I was going to do it.”


Vener spent seven years in Aerospace Physiology before he heard about Tactical Air Control Party Specialists while deployed to Balad, Iraq in 2004.  


After asking an Airman with an M-9 what his job was, Vener learned TACPs deployed with the Army and called in airstrikes.


“I still didn’t fully understand what that meant, but I knew that Airman was different,” Vener said. “Suddenly, I was noticing TACPs everywhere on that deployment, which planted the seeds in my mind about the career field.”


After returning from his deployment, Vener, now a Staff Sgt., realized it was time to make some career changes that would allow him more opportunities to develop professionally.


“I applied for TACP on a Monday and Thursday I got a phone call telling me I could either take an available TACP position or don’t take the position and get my re-enlistment denied,” Vener said. “I took the TACP position and was told to be there Monday morning.”


As the sole Air Force representative to the Army unit he deployed with, Vener found his career change to be another eye-opening experience.


“It was definitely eye-opening to go from the medical side where the focus is patient care and safety to the operational side of the house where the focus is the mission and combat,” Vener said. “It was also different because in Aerospace Physiology, I had many leadership opportunities and lots of mentorship but in TACP those opportunities were limited because of the mission and ops tempo.”


Vener brought all the mentorship and lessons learned from his Aerospace Physiology days to the TACP community, but after seven and a half years, Vener was ready to start a family.


“I wanted to start a family and wanted to ensure my family would have what they needed,” Vener said. “At the end of the day, there’s always someone to fill the mission, but for my family there’s only one of me.” 


Vener knew he had accomplished as much as he could in the position and rank he was in as a Tech. Sgt., but he wanted new challenges to continue growing and influencing other Airmen. After completing his degree in Healthcare Administration, Vener commissioned in March 2016 as a 2nd Lt. and went back to Aerospace Physiology.


“I’ve done the things I’ve wanted to do for me, and now I’m focusing on growing Airmen,” Vener said. “I’m grabbing everything I’ve learned across my Air Force career, bear-hugging it and bringing it back to give to the Airmen in front of me.”


Vener feels his career has finally come full circle in many ways. When he entered the TACP career field, he brought everything he learned from Aerospace Physiology into TACP and now he brings what he learned from TACP back into Aerospace Physiology.

“It can be difficult for people to understand how what they do in their ‘support function’ influences the operational mission,” Vener said. “Having experience in both a support and operational role has helped me understand how everyone has a vital role in Air Force mission readiness.”


When reflecting on his decision to join the Air Force, Vener again focuses on the people who have shaped his Air Force career.


“The Air Force alone did not change my life, the people who took time to invest in me made my success and changed my life,” Vener said. “The most valuable asset in any organization, will always be its people, not a machine. You can’t get the mission done without the people.”


Vener also has some advice for Airmen embarking on a new chapter in their lives.


“Your circumstances don’t define who you are or who you will become, rather, it’s what you decide to make of your circumstances and do with your experiences that matters,” Vener said. “It’s important to take all of your experience and skills with you as you move forward, only then can things truly come full circle.”