JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a national observance that recognizes Asian and Pacific Americans and celebrates their historical and cultural contributions to the United States.
For Capt. Johnny Sittisin, a student in the 479th Student Squadron, part of the 12th Flying Training Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, the month represents an opportunity to reflect on his family’s history of emigrating from Laos and Thailand and the experiences that led to his current role as a student in training to become an F-15E Weapon Systems Officer.
‘We want to go to the U.S.’
“My mother left Laos in 1976 after the Vietnamese Communist regime started spreading their influence,” Sittisin said. “One day members of the regime came over to my mother’s family’s farm and basically said, ‘This is ours.’”
Sittisin’s grandmother grabbed whatever she could and fled.
“It was my grandmother, my mother, and my two aunts. There was actually another aunt, but my grandmother had to give her to another family because she didn’t think she would be able to flee with that many children,” Sittisin said.
Sittisin’s grandmother and three children crossed the border into Thailand that day. Later, Sittisin’s grandmother discovered that her family and friends that stayed behind had been killed.
“I haven’t been able to get the full details out of my mother because it’s painful for her,” Sittisin said. “But even as people were crossing the river that borders Thailand, people were being shot and dying left and right.”
Sittisin’s mother, Syhounue Senthavisouk, and her family stayed in refugee camps in Thailand from 1976 until 1985, when they moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines. From there, her family had an opportunity through the United Nations International Committee of Migration to request migration to a country of their choice.
“My mom, who was a teenager at the time, consumed a lot of Western media, and she said, ‘We want to go to the U.S.,’” Sittisin said.
Sittisin’s father, Sanguansak Sittisin, came to the U.S. from Thailand in 1985 with a student visa for college. With $20 in his pocket and limited proficiency in English, he learned English by watching TV shows like “Dallas.” He discovered a knack for working with cars and found a career working with vehicle mechanics and electronics.
Sittisin’s parents met in 1985 in Northern California. They got married in 1986 and settled down in the Sacramento area, where they had two sons – Johnny and his younger brother Gary.
As Sittisin grew up in Northern California, his family instilled in him an appreciation for being American and a desire to serve.
“My mother and father always talked about how blessed we were with opportunity in the U.S.,” Sittisin said. “And they said, ‘Because you’re the firstborn son, you should give back in some way.”
They also had a front-row seat to U.S. Air Force operations, with aircraft flying in and out of the nearby Travis and McClellan Air Force Bases. This sparked a passion in Sittisin to one day learn how to fly.
“We had always loved aviation, but I didn’t understand if I fit the mold,” Sittisin said. “Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I pictured someone like Chuck Norris. I didn’t know if I could serve in that capacity.”
After high school, Sittisin went to Sacramento State University where he got both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. He went on to teach theater history at Sacramento State University for one year. However, Sittisin discovered that the school didn’t have any tenure tracks, and he went home after that school year to see his family and reassess his career goals.
“When I went to visit my mother, she said ‘I think you should try the Air Force,’” Sittisin said. “And I said, ‘You’ve been telling me that all these years. Let’s do it.’”
In January 2015, Sittisin walked into his local recruiting office. There was an Officer Training School board in about a week and a half, and Sittisin took the Air Force Officer Qualification Test a few days later. Shortly thereafter, he learned that he was one of three people selected for OTS that year from Northern California.
‘Stick and throttle time’
Sittisin graduated from OTS in 2015 and entered the Air Force as an intelligence officer.
“I wanted to fly, but I was picked up through a non-rated board,” Sittisin said. “And I always liked the idea of intel since I think it’s as close as you can get to being the tip of the spear without actually being the tip of the spear.”
His first assignment was at the 48th Fighter Wing at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. Working closely with the flying mission and seeing jets take off every day only strengthened Sittisin’s desire to fly himself.
“One day, I found out about the Pilot Preparation Program – looking for folks with little to no flight hours hoping to gain experience and improve their Pilot Candidate Selection Method scores,” Sittisin said, referring to what is now called the Rated Preparatory Program.
In 2019, Sittisin applied and got selected for the program. He went to Indiana, where he received self-paced ground training, five days of classroom instruction, flight simulator instruction in FAA-certified simulators, and about eight flight hours in a Cessna 182.
“I needed that actual stick and throttle time,” Sittisin said. “The program gave me the flight hours, the confidence, and the knowledge of aviation to be successful.’”
Upon completing the program, Sittisin applied to the Undergraduate Flying Training board and was selected for a rated position. He graduated from Combat Systems Officer training on February 18, 2022, and is headed to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., to train as an F-15E Weapon Systems Operator.
Diversity as a force multiplier
When reflecting on May as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Sittisin is appreciative of the role that diversity plays in today’s Air Force and the significance it can have in inspiring and recruiting future generations.
“Diversity encourages diversity of thought. How we’re raised and the cultures that we come from allow us to see the world from different perspectives,” Sittisin said. “I think that is probably the biggest force multiplier, in terms of what diversity and inclusion provide for the Air Force overall.”
“I hope that little kids now can see someone that looks like them in whatever role they want to do,” Sittisin said. “They’ll just say, ‘Yeah, I want to do that, and I can do that.’ That’s what I hope.”