Sheila didn’t look like the other elementary school kids. She didn’t speak the same language as her American classmates, having been raised in the Philippines. Her shoes were dirty and her clothes secondhand. The other kids jeered and called her “trash digger” as she worked her way from one trash bin to the next – face hidden behind whatever glasses her parents could afford – as she rummaged for aluminum cans.
What other kids saw as trash, Sheila saw as treasure; each tossed can was an opportunity to help provide for her family and hopefully take some pressure off her parents as they fought each day for the family’s future.
Sheila, now Sgt. 1st Class Sheila Tadina, food service operations manager with the Army National Guard, 1-207th Aviation Regiment, was born September 21, 1984 in San Fernando, La Union on the north side of the Philippines.
Being born on the 13th anniversary of Martial Law Day meant Sheila’s first experiences of this world were characterized by political turmoil, poverty and death.
“It was very hard because my mother and her siblings all lived in a shack or a storage unit in somebody’s backyard,” Tadina said. “They didn’t really have a home.”
Named Sheila, after blending “Shal,” and “Law” from “martial law,” Tadina spent the first four years of her life learning a concept of normality that would be considered catastrophic in the States.
During her four years in the Philippines, there were multiple coups d’etat, a government deposed, four typhoons – usually killing more than a thousand people – and multiple massacres by government forces.
Despite all this, Tadina – and many Filipinos like her – maintains an obvious and fierce cultural pride that directly benefits her military service.
“Fillipinos are very family-oriented people,” said Leticia Tadina, Vice-President of the Asian-Alaskan Cultural Center and Sheila’s mother. “We don’t use names, we use brother or sister. If your father is a farmer, you help your father when you have time. It bonds us together.”
Surrounded by the political and martial conflict around them, her parents were fighting – and winning – a much more personal battle: a fight for survival.
“Every Christmas, my dad would buy boxes of apples and give them to everybody,” Tadina said. “We didn’t know them, but it was our community, so he’d give everybody an apple. My dad gave up his savings so his brothers and sisters could go to school.”
Eventually, her father would get an opportunity to come work in America with a visa, and after becoming a citizen, was able to bring his family into an entirely new world.
Unfortunately, her mother’s degree wasn’t accredited in the United States, so finding a job was difficult and she joined the National Guard at 36 – just barely making it under the age requirement – and went to school full-time while her husband supported thefamily of seven on the wages of a dish washer, Tadina said.
After moving stateside Tadina moved three times in four years, until her father got a job as a fisherman and the family settled down in a two-bedroom trailer – three, if you count the closet floor Tadina claimed as her bedroom.
Tadina lived in the closet until she was in 7th grade, when her parents were able to get an additional room attached to the trailer, she said.
“Seeing them work so hard to take care of us, it made me want to take care of my family,” Tadina said.
So she did, one aluminum can at a time.
The other kids picked on her and called her names, but Tadina knew she was living by her parents’ example and persisted.
“I always stayed in school and stuck to myself, just studying, playing instruments, and not playing outside,” Tadina said. “My parents were strict about not playing outside past dinner.”
When she got to high school, she got involved in the controversy of females in military service.
“When I was in high school, there was a lot of people saying females couldn’t join the military,” Tadina said. “I thought that wasn’t right; if I can be the fastest runner in the class, I bet you I can do what any guy can.
“So I did.”
There’s more to it than that though; Tadina said by joining the military, she was freeing up valuable college funds for her brothers and sisters. Now she could pay for her own college, and her parents could give that much more to her siblings.
“All I can think of is, Mom and Dad sacrificed and worked hard to put a roof over our heads,” Tadina said. “The best I can do is appreciate everything they do and give back to the community.”
Twelve years later, Tadina is a food service operations manager providing for a much larger family just like she learned from her parents.
“I care a lot. I’m always right next to my Soldiers,” Tadina said. “We’re all the same, but different. We are all taught differently and don’t accept things the same way as everybody else. Some people have a softer personality and some don’t care. I try to break things down to different levels for each one and get them to work together.”
Now, even though she has lived in the United States far longer than she lived in the Philippines, Tadina holds strong cultural ties to her roots, and is heavily involved in local non-profits which give back to the Philippines.
“We contribute not just to the needy children,” Tadina said. “But also if anybody passes away, if anybody gets sick, or if something like Hurricane Katrina were to happen again, we’d go and help.”
With her history, it’s hardly a surprise Tadina staunchly believes hard work pays off, however delayed. As a noncommissioned officer, she does her best to pass this mindset on to her Soldiers.
“‘Why do the other people always get something?’ ‘Why are we so under appreciated at times?’ They’ll ask me,” Tadina said. “I just tell them not to worry, it’ll come. When we aren’t around, they’re eating [Meals Ready to Eat] and Mermites. We work longhours, but don’t worry, we’re appreciated. It may not be the way we want, but we are.”
Sure enough, those Soldiers were each recognized with coins and medals, Tadina said.
While they enjoyed their time in the spotlight, Tadina hung back and got her own reward – watching her family succeed.
“You’re supposed to train a Soldier the way you want them to act when they’re in your position,” Tadina said. “I tell them to do what’s right, and if anything happens, I’ll go down with them.”
Her poverty-stricken childhood is behind her, but the lessons she learned from her parents’ examples will never leave her – lessons she passes on to her fellow Soldiers.
“I just take care of them like they’re my family,” Tadina said.
By Senior Airman Kyle Johnson JBER Public Affairs