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USAFE-AFAFRICA Airman of the Year leaves big shoes to fill

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Robertson, 606th Air Control Squadron commander, presents Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th ACS cyber transport systems technician, with an award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During the presentation, Robertson thanked her for her dedication and contributions to the unit, as well as her fellow Airmen.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Robertson, 606th Air Control Squadron commander, presents Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th ACS cyber transport systems technician, with an award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During the presentation, Robertson thanked her for her dedication and contributions to the unit, as well as her fellow Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Valerie Halbert)

Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, poses with her award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During her time at Aviano, Naranjo began a squadron book club in an effort to boost morale during the onset of COVID-19 and led an animal shelter volunteer team which secured foster homes for 25 animals in need.

Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, poses with her award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During her time at Aviano, Naranjo began a squadron book club in an effort to boost morale during the onset of COVID-19 and led an animal shelter volunteer team which secured foster homes for 25 animals in need. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Valerie Halbert)

Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, poses with her award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During her time at Aviano, Naranjo has been selected for early promotion to senior airman below-the-zone and achieved her Community College of the Air Force degree.

Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, poses with her award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During her time at Aviano, Naranjo has been selected for early promotion to senior airman below-the-zone and achieved her Community College of the Air Force degree. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Valerie Halbert)

Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, and her team pose for a photo with her award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During her time at Aviano, Naranjo began a squadron book club in an effort to boost morale during the onset of COVID-19 and led an animal shelter volunteer team which secured foster homes for 25 animals in need.

Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, and her team pose for a photo with her award for the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Oct. 14, 2020. During her time at Aviano, Naranjo began a squadron book club in an effort to boost morale during the onset of COVID-19 and led an animal shelter volunteer team which secured foster homes for 25 animals in need. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Valerie Halbert)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --

As Senior Airman Maria Naranjo, 606th Air Control Squadron cyber transport systems technician, prepares to head out to her next duty station, she leaves behind big shoes to fill as the 2019 U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airman of the Year.

While Aviano Air Base, Italy, is Naranjo’s first duty station, her journey in the Department of Defense first began as a civilian.

“I had always wanted to join the Air Force and kind of chickened out of it when I was younger,” said Naranjo. “As a DoD civilian, I would see people in uniform come in and out all the time and I said ‘You know what? I really want to join, I want to travel, and I really want to get my education.’”

Naranjo said everyone has expectations of what the Air Force is going to be like, but Aviano surpassed every expectation she had.

“Of course, there were moments of learning that could sometimes be painful,” said Naranjo. “But my leadership has been great, from my first supervisor to my commander. I could not have asked for a better leadership team.”

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Robertson, 606th ACS commander, presented her the award for all her hard work. During the presentation he thanked her for her dedication and contributions to the unit, as well as her fellow Airmen.

She explained that her commander enabled the squadron in such a way that everyone had the chance to lead by their own means.

“I think that speaks volumes,” said Naranjo. “It helps people realize that even in small roles, you can make an impact.”

With this supportive work environment, she had the opportunity to grow, thrive, and lead many projects which led to her winning this award.

During her time in Aviano, Naranjo was selected for early promotion to senior airman below-the-zone, achieved her Community College of the Air Force degree, began a squadron book club in an effort to boost morale during the onset of COVID-19, and led an animal shelter volunteer team which secured foster homes for 25 animals in need.

“What motivates me is not something even work-related,” said Naranjo. “I think at the end of the day, I realized I had to do something that makes me happy. Even if it’s something small that might mean nothing to someone else, it’s what makes me happy.”

If you don’t focus on happiness, you can get lost in the sauce, she continued.

From her first days in the First Term Airman Center, she said people told them that everyone joins the military with specific goals in mind, but they never accomplish them.

“I took that to heart and wrote down plans and goals for myself and ways to get there,” she said. “Now I’m so close to getting my bachelor’s degree, I’ve traveled the world, and I’ve gotten married. My husband is my rock and without him there is no way I could have done everything.”

As Naranjo prepares to head to her next adventure at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, she has a few words of advice for the young new Airmen who may wish to follow in her footsteps.

“Don’t chase a goal that doesn’t bring you happiness,” Naranjo said. “Whenever you’re dedicating any of your time to the Air Force, make sure you never forget the ‘you’ piece. Don’t leave yourself out.”