By Air Force Staff Sgt. Marjorie Bowlden, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing
AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 25, 2017 — Every airman has a story, a path that led them to where they stand today. Whether they joined the Air Force for personal advancement or for love of country, their commitment started with a single choice. At a definitive point in time, they decided to serve something bigger than themselves.
Most airmen begin their military path on United States soil. But for others, the beginning of the Air Force journey can be traced across oceans and beyond borders to a culture much different from our own.
Such is the case with Air Force Tech. Sgt. Siddartha Sosa-Rodriguez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of plans and programs for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing chapel.
“Every immigrant that is able to come to the military and grow within the military should feel very, very proud,” Sosa-Rodriguez said. “On top of all the natural obstacles that the military puts on us to make us stronger, we also have to deal with the language barrier and culture differences. It says a lot about the strength of people, no matter what country they come from.”
Deployed from the 157th Air Refueling Wing in New Hampshire, Sosa-Rodriguez brings valued diversity to the 380 AEW chapel staff as a Hispanic-American Hindu in a predominantly Christian career field. He is known for his efforts to elevate the morale of those around him, whether by handing out ice pops or challenging various offices to bean-bag toss “throw downs” after work.
“A chaplain assistant is essentially responsible for being good at a plethora of tasks all at the same time,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Piers Osborne with the 380 AEW chapel. “The immense variety of life experiences he has had allows him to relate to a wide span of people from just about every background out there.”
Sosa-Rodriguez was born in the Dominican Republic into a family that followed the state religion of Roman Catholicism. Because his parents were separated and his father lived in New York, he stayed in the Dominican Republic with his mother and other family members for most of his early life.
He knew early on that his destiny was to serve others, specifically through military service. At age 7 he saw a military recruitment ad on television that was followed by a commercial with an image of a sickened old woman in need of help.
“I remember this overwhelming feeling inside of me, and I went running to my mother crying,” Sosa-Rodriguez said. “I don’t know if I said it out loud or if I just thought about it when she asked, but I said to myself, ‘I know what I want to do when I grow up.’”
Though he was certain about eventually joining the military, he was full of questions about the world around him. He would consistently ask the same three questions: who is God, why do we exist the way we do, and who are we as humans? But he was mostly unsatisfied with the answers provided.
Later, while living with his father in New York, Sosa-Rodriguez found a book in the street that discussed the basic beliefs of the world’s major religions. He read it cover to cover, wondering if maybe one of the religions inside was what he was looking for; instead he was left with more questions.
He returned to the Dominican Republic unsatisfied, but said a festival at the Indian embassy changed his life forever. The embassy was displaying different aspects of Indian culture. A religious group took the stage and sang Bajans -- Hindu spiritual songs. Though Sosa-Rodriguez didn’t understand Sanskrit, he felt as if something had fallen into place in his heart.
“My skin started getting goosebumps and I just felt so attracted to it,” he said.
After discovering a nearby Hindu temple, he started attending every day before and after school to do more research. At 13, Sosa-Rodriguez became an initiate and a full member of the Hindu faith.
When he was 16, he returned to the U.S. and was emancipated, but he could not return to the Dominican Republic to live on his own until he was 18.
He worked in a fabric factory in New Jersey to raise enough money to return to the Dominican Republic live in the Hindu temple where he had studied. The conditions were hard, Sosa-Rodriguez said, and he barely made enough money to get by, let alone enough to save the $190 for his plane ticket.
“I think that I was only person who was legally in the United States in that place,” he said. “I remember it was on the fifth floor in the winter with broken windows. Nobody would complain because they were afraid. My job was to cut fabric with scissors, and I would have to hold my hands over the heater just to bring back enough feeling.”
Eventually, he made it to the temple and was ordained as a Pujari, a Hindu priest.
After five years at the temple, Sosa-Rodriguez moved to back to the United States to join the military. He enlisted with the 157th ARW and moved more than 1,500 miles to pursue a different kind of service with the New Hampshire Air National Guard -- a service that he excels at, Osborne said.
“I have known him three years, since I started with the New Hampshire ANG,” Osborne said. “We overuse this word, but he truly is an outstanding airman . He consistently gives way more than is required, works hard, stays late, and is always looking out for others.”
Sosa-Rodriguez said he doesn’t plan to end his career anytime soon, either. He hopes to eventually become a command chief and retire after a full term of service. He also plans to start his own civilian organization to help others grow physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
Though his path was not without difficulty or struggle, he said he believes it helped him bring serenity into the lives of others.
“Absolutely my experiences have shaped me, changed me, and I think for the better,” Sosa-Rodriguez said. “It’s taken its toll. Nothing is for free in the universe, but it did shape me in a way that I believe I can help people better. It has made me stronger, and it has helped me to help others become stronger.”