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Face of Defense: Buddy System Proves Friendly for Medics From Guam

Chuck Roberts Special to American Forces Press Service

Airman Taija Alcantara (left) and Airman Tiamae Cruz prepare for surgery in February in an operating room at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. They are in training to become surgical technicians. Their military careers have continued to follow each other since they joined under the Air Force Buddy System in Guam. U.S. Army photo by Chuck Roberts

LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, Germany, March 18, 2008 Whenever Airman Tiamae Cruz needed a helping hand while growing up in Guam, a friendly face seemed to arrive within minutes. So when the 18-year-old decided to join the Air Force and leave the confines of her Pacific island measuring 30 miles long by 12 miles wide, she looked around for the usual reassurance.

Enter Airman Taija Alcantara. The grammar school chum, high school sporting rival and rediscovered best friend was a fellow student at the University of Guam. Both wondered what to do with their lives and were on similar career paths. Cruz aspired to become a veterinarian; Alcantara hoped to become a cardiac surgeon.

"It would be great if you joined (the Air Force with) me," Cruz recalls saying to Alcantara.

A military career in unknown lands was a daunting proposal. Alcantara had never left the island, except for a few months as a 4-year-old, while Cruz had visited the U.S. occasionally, but only with family.

"We were really, really scared and nervous," Cruz said. "It was a big step. Being from Guam, everything is small and you're used to leaning on your family and friends."

It seemed clear the developing plan called for some sort of guaranteed Guam support network, which fortunately the local military recruiter was able to offer. Through the Air Force Buddy System, he was able to guarantee the friends would spend the first six weeks of their military career together at basic training. At the time it seemed like enough, but the contract they signed would later turn out to be much more than they could have hoped for.

When their 24-hour flight to basic military training ended with a screaming welcoming committee at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, the value of the buddy system became immediately apparent.

"Basic training was kind of scary," Cruz said. "Taija was my support network."

Their companionship helped overcome the initial tears and desire to return home, but it wasn't always encouraged, said Alcantara, a native of Mangilao, Guam.

From basic training, the two comrades could have gone in different directions both professionally and geographically. They entered the Air Force as "open general," meaning they did not have a guaranteed specific job. Instead, during basic training they would pick a job among five choices, and surgical technician was an option offered to both. For two women seeking medical careers, it was the obvious choice.

The Guam connection continued to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, for eight weeks of technical training. When that ended, they once again beat the buddy system odds and were both assigned to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., for six additional weeks of on-the-job training.

Not only their basic training instructor, but also subsequent technical school instructors felt the young women were too dependent upon each other and attempted to separate the pair. Cruz said some encouraged competitiveness between them, but for Cruz and Alcantara, the issue was friendship and supporting each other along this new military adventure.

"We can work on our own. We can function on our own. It's just that we find sometimes we function better together," said Cruz, whose hometown is Yona, Guam.

At both training bases they said they continued to hear comments such as, "Where's your other half?" or "Why aren't you with your twin?" In fact, now that they were roommates with more free time on their hands, they joked about feeling like true sisters, sharing both good times and occasional spats followed by a door slam.

With technical school completed, both airmen returned to Guam, where they participated in the Recruiter Assistance Program while on leave. As part of the recruiter program, airmen visit schools and other locations to help promote the Air Force. Alcantara also got married, with her maid of honor being who else but her fellow airman and best friend. They picked out the wedding gown together while wearing their battle dress uniforms.

After their trip home, it was time to begin their Air Force careers. The odds were further stacked against the buddy system extending to a job at the same location in the global Air Force. But they both put Germany at the top of their "dream sheet" of potential bases they would like to be stationed at, and Germany it was.

"We were excited when we heard we were coming (to Ramstein Air Base)," Alcantara said. "But it's so big and you just don't know where to start. I'm in culture shock."

She soon faces even further adjustment when her husband, Shawn Alcantara, departs for Air Force basic military training.

Cruz has had to adjust her lifestyle too.

"I'm freezing, first of all," Cruz said. Since her Dec. 2 arrival, she has adjusted to life in Landstuhl, which is in stark contrast with Guam, where she described a life of "always at the beach" swimming, snorkeling or playing sports.

"My whole system has been thrown off," Cruz said. "I don't know what to do. I don't know who I am. I don't know how to act sometimes. It's weird trying to readjust and find myself again."

Although new to their career field and to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center where they continue with their on-the-job training, both airmen are solid performers who have hit the ground running, their supervisor said.

"Airmen Alcantara and Cruz have already proven themselves to be valuable assets to our surgical suite," said Tech. Sgt. Jonah Gruner, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the operating room. "They both are extremely motivated. They work together seamlessly, yet they seem to keep a good-natured competition between them while completing their career development courses. Hopefully, their friendship will continue to grow throughout their careers. We are thrilled to have them here."

Their friendship seems certain to continue throughout their careers, but only time will tell if their careers will continue parallel to their friendship.

"That will be interesting. We don't know," Cruz said of the prospect. If their future leads in different directions, she said that will be okay because they will have grown both personally and professionally in the meantime.

"Honestly, she's like my sister," Cruz said. "We're always going to be there for each other. Family is family. If something happens to your family, you're going to be there for them."

(Chuck Roberts is assigned to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Public Affairs.)

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