Staff Sgt. Martha Otto’s excitement began to soar as a helicopter landed at Kakuma refugee camp in North-west Kenya, November 2000. The former South Sudanese refugee and recent 86th Logistics Readiness Squadron training manager survived gruesome attacks caused by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and waited anxiously for her and her older brother’s departure to the U.S.
“I was so excited about it all,” she said, recalling her neighborhood’s tall American tales. “I remember being told ‘you don’t have to worry over there.’ If you want to go somewhere, they have these special shoes you put on and hit a button and it takes you somewhere.”
Otto said she believes the magic shoes they talked about were roller skates. For someone who grew up walking from village to village her entire life, the idea was captivating.
“I was going to finally see the place where food comes out of the wall!” she chuckled.
Otto had only been in a car a handful of times in her life and was giddy with anticipation as they rose above the hardened, Kenyan ground during her first helicopter ride.
While traveling to Nairobi Airport, the turbulent helicopter welcomed the fourteen-year-old’s motion sickness. Yet, no amount of vomit could wipe the smile off her face.
“I threw up everywhere!” she exclaimed, laughing.
They reached the big city airport and Otto was astonished by the technology, infrastructure and people.
“The airport was beyond a village,” Otto said. “I was like, ‘this cannot be real’. I’ve never seen a regular bathroom before where you push a button.”
Several flights and time zones later, the Ottos hit U.S. soil. They signed their names at Ellis Island and caught another flight to the Midwest, just in time for a Nebraska winter.
“We got to Omaha Nov. 6, 2000. I was wearing a skirt, a button down shirt, my best shoes were flip-flops and everything I owned was in a plastic bag. It was freezing outside and it was snowing… I’d never seen snow before. That was the beginning of my life as I have it now, in America.”
The teenagers were part of a program helping sponsor war-torn civilians to the states. Once refugees receive a job, they pay the trip fees back to the program so the program can continue paying it forward and help other refugees migrate to the U.S.
They lived with their sponsor for a few months, who also assisted with their personal transitions.
Rationing for food and searching for safety came to a close, but Otto still had many obstacles to overcome her culture shock. The East-African native had never seen a computer, let alone use it to complete her school work. Her new school was a frigid 45-minute walk every day. But, she said, as many times as she felt like quitting, she heard her mother’s voice echoing in her head: “Better not stop going to school! If you don’t get your education there’s no other way of making it,” Otto said, remembering her mother’s words. “You have to get your education. The education you have will open doors for you, that even me, your mother, I cannot open for you.’”
A month later, Otto moved to a closer school and the siblings rented their own apartment. Throughout the next few years, the orphaned teenager persevered working various jobs, taking night classes and attending summer school. She earned her high school diploma in 2003, at approximately the age of 19.
Otto attended college for a short time and turned to the Air Force when searching for other ways to pay for school. She left for basic military training in May 2007, and continually looks to build on becoming a better person.
“I try to improve myself every day and try to make myself a better person every day,” Otto said. “I feel like because of my obstacles, I missed a lot of lessons and things I should have known; I never stop learning.”
Otto graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice in 2012 from Saint Leo University in Tampa, Florida.
The technical sergeant-select is passionate about using her experiences to encourage others. She shares her story at private events focused on resilience.
“I think of what had happened to me and how I grew up, I have this need in me to have to help people,” Otto said. “I have to help even if it’s my last dime; I have to do something. I’ll put myself in strain to make sure another person is okay.”
Otto has two nieces and a nephew today, who are walking the same beaten path she did years ago at a camp ten kilometers from Uganda’s Achol-Pii.
The war in South Sudan continues. According to Mercy Corps, a non-profit organization, six million citizens have been forced to flee their homes, making it the third-most fled country in the world. More than 1.5 million people are on the brink of famine while many are already dying from starvation.
Otto is driven to change her family’s fate and open doors of opportunity. This past month the children were able to leave their refugee camp to attend boarding school because of her financial assistance.
“In all this, I’m grateful for a lot of things. I’m really grateful for the U.S., to allow me the opportunity to come and be part of their society. To whoever it was who picked up my application and said yeah…we’ll take this group of refugees; that is one thing I’m really, really grateful for. Another thing I’m grateful for is being a part of the most powerful Air Force in the world. I have no words. Nobody [growing up] knew me to be in one of the most respected Armed Forces.”
The 10-year Airman attributes her motivation and successes to the supportive friends she has made during her time in service. She believes success is based on being able to give back and have more impact in making a difference in other people’s lives.
The root of her strength stems from her arduous journey fleeing the LRA’s gruesome attacks in addition to her mother’s lessons, an intrinsic drive to help others, and her foundation of supportive wingmen.
“The Air Force didn’t have to accept me, they had other more qualified applicants out there, but I’m still here,” Otto said, smiling. “I get to wear this uniform every day and there is power behind it that’s beyond me.”