An Airman’s Story: From homeless child to squadron superintendent

  • Published
  • By Debbie Gildea
  • 340th Flying Training Group Public Affairs

JOINT-BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas – As a child, Tricia Adolphues lived in a car with her mom, little brother and sister shortly after moving to South Central Los Angeles, California. Today, the Air Force Reserve senior master sergeant is the 5th Flying Training Squadron superintendent at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

Living in a car is a clear indicator that there will be challenges ahead. Nevertheless, Adolphues - even as a child - pushed forward, step by terrifying step, developing reserves of strength and character that she would draw upon in the days and years to come.

“I don’t know the details, but it was obvious to me, even as a child, that something happened in my mom’s life and she just couldn’t get past it,” Adolphues said, explaining that her earliest memories were of her, her mom, little brother Sig and sister Chanken living in a car in South Central Los Angeles (one of the worst gang-ridden crime-infested areas in the country at the time).

Unable to find a job or afford a place to live, Tricia’s mother moved her little family from relative to relative, moving on to hotels and motels when they felt they had outstayed their welcome. That nomadic existence led to an extended stay with one of her mother’s sisters, but when her mom found a job working in a candy store, the family was able to stop moving, to move into a place of their own.

It was no palace (using an ice chest for a refrigerator), but they knew they would sleep in the same place every night, and that provided young Tricia with enough stability to tentatively consider tomorrow.

“When I was growing up, there was no time for ‘what do I want to do or be when I grow up.’ It was all about survival - just do what you have to do to survive,” she said.

She and her brother did have an ever-so-slight advantage over other neighborhood kids, using an aunt’s home address to register for school in Santa Monica, where they were safer and exposed to education that would prove to be a foundation for Tricia.

“It wasn’t easy. We were just kids and had to walk several miles by ourselves to get to the school bus that took us to school,” she explained. “But we had each other.”

For a child who was taking care of her little brother and helping mom care for the baby sister, cooking meals, doing some minor grocery shopping and more by the age of 7, walking through the mean streets to get to the bus was not a huge deal - it was just one of the things they had to do to survive.

After graduation she worked two to three jobs at a time, including working in the candy store where her mom worked (to supplement her meager earnings). Later she worked as a dental assistant, which she loved but it didn’t pay well, so she drove a school bus every day until she graduated, earning  her registered dental assistant license..

She worked some long, hard hours to scrape together enough money to buy a small, used car and found a tiny place to live, and was still helping her mom to ensure that Sig and her baby sister would have what they needed to thrive.

As much as she loved being a dental assistant, she would need education and training to be able to earn a sustainable income.

“There wasn’t even enough money to thrive, and no money for school,” she said. And with three jobs, there weren’t enough hours in the day to go to school, even if she could afford it. Something had to change.

“I spent a full year researching before I decided to join the Air Force Reserve,” she said. “Time was flying and I knew I had to do something soon, but I was going to be cautious.  I was ready to start fresh, and I refused to settle.”

In 2001 - the oldest Airman in her flight at age 26 - Tricia enlisted in the Air Force Reserve, accepting a slot in the administrative support career field.

It was the beginning of a career - a life - that completely changed her, but even positive change isn’t easy.

“I felt like I was behind in everything, like I had to catch up with everyone. It felt like I had so much work to do, and I could never relax and enjoy the fact that I had what I needed,” she said.

Her career is a testimony to hard work (and, in fact, she is the most recent 340th Flying Training Group Senior NCO of the Year). However, regardless of her accomplishments, career progression, and professional standing, being homeless and dependent on the sporadic kindness of relatives and strangers left an open wound in the young Airman that she struggled to hide behind a smile, and a bottomless hole in her heart that she worked furiously to fill.

Persuading her terrified inner child to let go of the past started with working to understand how people perceived her.

“I started working on how people experienced being with me,” she explained. “I had so many bad experiences, and I didn’t want people to have a bad experience with me. I didn’t want others to be unhappy because of their interaction with me.”

A breakthrough occurred when she realized that “everybody has stuff” that they’re dealing with, everybody needs help at some point in their life. And the secret to healing, she believes, is to help others.

With a thousand-watt smile that lit the room, she said “Now when I smile, I’m not hiding. Now my smile is for others, to help them with their stuff.”

It’s an attitude that her teammates recognize and embrace.

“She balances a very challenging family life with her responsibilities here in the 5th FTS with skill I can only dream of,” said 5th FTS Director of Operations Lt. Col. Travis Higbee, “and she does it with such grace that you can’t help but enjoy her smile and genuine concern.”

That challenging family life, in fact, could have been her Achilles heel, but instead is a source of even greater strength. The career Reservist - who has been traditional Reserve, an Active Guard Reserve (AGR) member, and Air Reserve Technician - married a man whose experiences and goals parallel hers. But he’s been a 1,000 miles away for two years.

Antonio Jabello Adolphues III, now a technical sergeant in the Georgia Air National Guard, grew up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. Like Tricia, he has seen the worst kind of human behavior. A former active duty soldier, and former active duty Airman, he transferred to the Guard, where he is a part-time civil engineer senior NCO. As a full-time civilian geographical information systems manager for an energy company in Georgia, he is a successful professional. But he lives and works 1,000 miles from his wife and their 12- and 3-year-old sons.

Family separation is a sacrifice many military families make, but one that is focused on the “big picture” for Tricia and Antonio.

“We have the same goals, and our desire is to develop a legacy for our kids,” Tricia explained, adding that Antonio has nearly finished his master’s degree and will soon retire from the Guard. Once he does, he’ll move to Oklahoma, where he and Tricia will continue to develop that legacy. 

Antonio, and best friend Kendi Weaver, have been Tricia’s rock and shelter from a storm she never anticipated - when her baby brother, Sig, was shot and killed on the streets of L.A. on Superbowl Sunday 2014. 

“He was 18 months younger, but always seemed older - so outgoing and had so many friends. Everybody called me ‘Sig’s sister.’ When he died, I just shut down, went straight to the ground. I needed help, needed to focus on me, needed to try to figure out how to recover. Thank God for my husband, for his strength,” she said, adding quietly, “A year later, my husband’s mom died. You know, work-wise, there was not enough support for us.”

Like other tragedies in her life, Tricia (and Antonio) came away stronger.

“Adversity stretches you,” she said. “I really don’t know how we did it, sometimes. It’s all God - he got us through.”

She has applied her many experiences - including the tragedy of Sig’s death - to her personal and professional life, and works hard to stay faithful to a clear set of rules:

- Keep your heart soft: Don’t let negative circumstances harden your heart. Keep your heart soft and open to others’ needs, so that when someone needs help, they’ll come to you.

- Keep your eye on the goal: You must know why you are where you are, why you are doing what you’re doing, and then keep that “why” in mind every step of your journey. You may want to quit, but you’ll be able to continue if you keep your “why” in mind. It is the foundation of your work ethic, and of your life.

- Be a risk taker: Don’t be foolish, obviously, but when you have your “why” in mind, go for it! Chase that dream, that goal. Don’t let fear stop you!

- It’s all about people: Don’t let “by the book” prevent you from connecting with people. Be connected - develop relationships!  The best supervisor I ever had was Master Sgt. Sharon Richardson. She understood my weaknesses and my attitude, was patient with me while inspiring me and mentoring me. She cared about me enough to get in my chili when I needed it, gave constructive criticism with love, and taught me not only how to do my job, but how to be a good NCO. She moved through stress like milk and honey. When I was in the hospital having a baby, she showed up uninvited, unexpected, but she knew she was so needed. If you want to succeed, be Sergeant Richardson.

In her team’s eyes, Tricia is the living embodiment of those rules.

“She took a struggling staff and single-handedly revived it and got it back on track, guiding its future success.  She goes out of her way to serve and support, and not just at work.  She truly lives the ‘service before self’ mantra! Here at the 5th, she’s not just our SUP, she’s family. We are so lucky to have her,” Higbee said.

Long before she arrived at the 5th, she knew she wanted to be a “go to source,” so she sought opportunities to grow. Although originally an admin support specialist, when a personnel opportunity came along, she took the chance to grow professionally. Today, she uses skills developed in both fields to support the 5th, where she’s having a visible and measurable impact on a and teammates she loves.

“She is very innovative, and her process improvement ideas have reduced travel voucher processing time and increased accuracy to the point where none of the old issues we used to have are even an issue anymore,” Higbee said. “That has been awesome, and now she’s working on our Unit Training Assembly Participation System processing, which is showing tremendous potential.”

Senior Master Sgt. Tricia Adolphues has come a long way since she called a car home, and almost every aspect of her life has changed. She no longer struggles to simply survive, but one rule in her life remains unchanged: Do what you have to do to fulfill your purpose in life.