KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Every Airman has their own story, unique with diverse educational backgrounds, mixed upbringings and different heritages.
For Master Sgt. Larwens Subtil, 8th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant at Kunsan Air Base, his Air Force story begins in Haiti.
“Things are tough in a third world country,” said Subtil. “In a lot of third world countries, although you get education, it’s very bad. I remember our mom working 16 to 18 hours a day, just to make sure that she put us through a private school. It came at a cost though. We would go about 20 days throughout the year with no food. My mom’s ideology was that education is more valued than food. It was good to know that my mom believed that when we got good grades, there was a possibility that we could make a name for ourselves.”
To help out with finances, Subtil’s father left his family to accept a job in the U.S. With the money he earned, he was able to support the family modestly and eventually obtain visas for his family to come to the U.S. Subtil was 19 at the time.
“The hope is that if you do well in school, maybe, if you get to the United States, then things will be better,” he said.
In Subtil’s view, this ideology is standard for some Haitians. For many, being in the U.S. creates a possibility for hope. That idea, plus the high value his mother placed on education, stuck with him.
He enrolled in college, but while attending he faced several challenges. He had to learn English, due to not being a citizen he wasn’t eligible for most scholarships, and his family didn’t have enough money to pay for him.
With this in mind, Subtil got a job at a grocery store making $6.15 an hour. An unsettling incident at this job ultimately led to him enlisting in the Air Force.
“I was working the dairy aisle and I was trying to put the products that expire sooner closer to the front and put the later date in the back. I had just cleaned up my aisle and was thinking how good it looks. There was this woman that just came in and she was trying to get items from the back, but she basically knocked out everything to grab what she needed, while I was right next to her. She looked at me and made me feel like I was not worth anything. At that time, I was just furious. I asked my manager to take a 30-minute break and I went to the dairy cooler and cried,” Subtil said. ‘It was there that I started to question, ‘What is my purpose here?’”
Shortly thereafter, Subtil met with a recruiter, enlisted in the Air Force and became an X-Ray technician.
Once he completed his training, he moved to Keesler Air Force Base, where he would spend most of his first enlistment. It was there that he decided he wanted to stay in the military and obtained his citizenship through the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows service members to file for naturalization based on their military service.
“I was enjoying [my job]. There were a lot of things that the military offered me in that sense of brotherhood. It wasn’t just work,” Subtil said.
Subtil is now a first sergeant at Kunsan where he is responsible for the morale and welfare of the 8th CES. He accomplishes this task by assisting with leave requests, pay issues and a variety of other daily occurrences.
“I enjoy helping people. The simple things matter to every Airman and you’re at the center of that. [The support] is endless and it’s extremely rewarding to hear, ‘thank you.’”
Subtil’s story and his Haitian heritage affect the way he operates every day at work and in his personal life.
“In Haitian culture, we have a close-knit family and it helps me in the military because it gives me a sense of belonging. It helps me understand my Air Force family as well so I can get close to them. My family taught me the importance of staying together,” he said.
As a first sergeant, Subtil has worked for the 22nd Airlift Squadron and the 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, before coming to Kunsan. He has been in the Air Force for 15 years and he wants to continue serving as long as he can.
“From Haiti to the greatest Air Force in the world… what are the chances?” Subtil asked aloud. “I don’t ever want to think about the day I’m leaving, because the military helped make me who I am today.”