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Barrier breaking Airman is first Female, Filipino Colonel in Chaplain Corps

Col. Leah Boling, 154th Wing chaplain, delivers a virtual prayer invocation June 2, 2021, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam-Hawaii.

Col. Leah Boling, 154th Wing chaplain, delivers a virtual prayer invocation June 2, 2021, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam-Hawaii. Boling became the first Asian American and Pacific Islander female being promoted to the rank of colonel within the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. John Linzmeier)

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --

A historic promotion ceremony was held on May 11, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, in celebration of the first Asian American and Pacific Islander female being promoted to the rank of colonel within the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps.

To coincide with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, Col. Leah Boling also became the first Asian American female to reach the senior rank within the Hawaii Air National Guard.

Family members, colleagues and 154th Wing leadership gathered to show support for Col. Leah Boling’s groundbreaking achievement, as hundreds of spectators observed the virtually streamed event.

“This achievement, to become the first Filipino-American female Chaplain to reach colonel in the entire Air Force Chaplain Corps, among other firsts, is nothing short of significant,” announced Brig. Gen. Dann S. Carlson, presiding officer and 154th Wing commander. “We have all witness you excel in your position here as the Hawaii Air National Guard chaplain, as well as your acting colonel position as the ANG assistant to the command chaplain for Air Mobility Command, and it’s great to finally have the federal recognition to let you wear the rank you deserve.”

As the Hawaii ANG’s on-call and full-time chaplain, Boling’s career progression and success were paved upon by her ability to directly help other service members and their families as they navigate through turbulent times within their personal and professional lives.

Boling came to the U.S. as a 26-year old immigrant from the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. At the time, her aspirations and goals had little to do with a career in military service. However, she was always dedicated to her personal mission of spiritual growth and family values which eventually gave her an avenue to offer her passions to members of the military community.

“In 2000, Chaplain Nagamine, the Wing Chaplain and my Sunday School teacher then, actively recruited me to join the Guard,” said Boling. “I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of joining the military, but I considered it. Then 9/11 happened. I saw the need and so my decision to pursue my application package became more real. Thus, in April 2002, I raised my hand to serve our country.”

As a new member of the Chaplain Team, Boling said it felt as though she was going into uncharted territory, as no one else who fit her particular demographic had been in her position before. She was left with no choice but to find a way to overcome any biases that were at odds with her.

“To be honest with you, I was anxious when I reported for my first drill. I didn’t know how the Airmen would receive me or if they would accept me at all. Me—an Asian-American female Chaplain.”

Under feelings of pressure and adversity, Boling finally resolved to make a promise to herself as a way to silence the inner and outer criticisms. She decided to always show up, maintain control over her performance and stay true to her identity while serving the Airmen to the best of her abilities.

“In other words,” she said, “I decided if they don’t want to accept me or my service, then that’s on them. I don’t have to carry that burden. The only burden I allowed myself to carry is to ask myself ‘did I do the best I could for the Airman?’”

Before long, Boling’s guiding principles earned her a reputation within the Hawaii ANG. She became a frequently sought out confidant and credentialed counselor to countless Airman and family members within the military community.

Throughout her career, Boling found herself going beyond the traditional duties of providing interpersonal counseling for individual members. She became an active and highly valued participant in Hawaii’s State Partnership Program with the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an ambassador for cultural and career field expert exchanges with Airmen from her home country.

During crisis events, such as the ongoing pandemic, she helped found several initiatives for Airman; to include a community food storage facility where Airmen in-need can access free sustenance, and the ‘Meet-a-Need’ program, connecting individuals to free household services and items on a confidential basis.

Boling said she strived to be an approachable and caring wingman as she rose through the ranks, while developing leadership skills amongst command-level leaders.

During her promotion ceremony, Boling attributed much of her success to the non-stop love and support from her family, and a long list of mentors with first names such as Dann, James, Duke and the like -- an announcement that was followed by a brief, yet thought provoking silence.

“Did you notice all the mentors I mentioned are men?” she added. “That’s right. That’s my reality. That’s my story. I hope my story will have an impact on someone else’s story as well.”

While Boling marked Hawaii ANG history by becoming the first Asian-American to pin on a rank that has only been achieved by the top two percent of Air Force officers, her achievement set a precedent that would be followed shortly after.

A friend and colleague, also from the Asian American community, pinned on the rank colonel just two months later. Col. Regina Komine, an Airman with Korean and African American ancestry, assumed command of the 154th Mission Support Group in June.

In alignment with the chaplain’s unique career in the Hawaii ANG, Boling was recently selected to be the ANG’s next Chaplain Corps Director, making her the first woman and person of color to assume the top position.

“When I joined 19 years ago,” said Boling, “I didn’t set out to break glass ceilings. To be a groundbreaker. To be a trailblazer. Or any other idioms or metaphors you can think of. All I really wanted to do was serve the Airmen to the best of my abilities. I joined the Guard out of patriotism and a calling. It never even crossed my mind about being a first of anything.”

Strong leaders such as Boling may have not always been focused on disrupting the status quo throughout the ranks, rather its sheer strength, diverse backgrounds and commitment to service which is ultimately causing a cultural shift for the betterment of the force.

Her efforts and that of so many other female and minority leaders are taking the U.S. Air Force to new heights and proving to the world that greatness is not a quality that originates from an individual's background; rather it comes from the hearts of those who are dedicated to helping others and making a lasting impact within their community.