Playing The Pawn

Elmendorf chief shares story of journey from L.A. gang to Air Force leadership

Story by Randy Roughton
Photos by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee


Growing up in Los Angeles, Chief Master Sgt. Jose A. Barraza followed in the footsteps of his parents and became involved in gangs. After multiple run-ins with the law and near-death experiences, he decided to change his life and enlisted in the Air Force. Now the 3rd Wing command chief at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, he uses the game of chess to help tell his story. (U.S. Air Force video/Andrew Arthur Breese)


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As a young teenager, the Los Angeles gang member who would one day become an Air Force command chief was already realizing the inconsistencies in his life. His grandmother confronted him with the differences between his attire and behavior when he visited her compared to how he appeared and acted on the streets.

“You’re Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she told him. “Because when you come see me, you’re in your polo shirts and look all clean. But then you go on the street, and you’re wearing your Dickies and white T-shirts.”

Chief Master Sgt. Jose A. Barraza knew she was right. “I was an absolute contradiction,” he said. “But that’s just the way it was.”

The contradictions are still quite prevalent in Barraza’s life, although they have changed somewhat, along with the shifting of his priorities during his evolution from a street thug into an ultra-energetic and positive Air Force leader. From the moment he arrives at the 3rd Wing headquarters at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, where he serves as command chief, Barraza takes a personal interest in each person he meets. Each one gets a smile, an occasional hug and his characteristic “hooah.”

“I have those naysayers who think, ‘Oh, brother, here he comes. I don’t want your sunshine today, Chief Barraza,’” he said. “‘I want it to rain on me today. Just take your sunshine somewhere else.’

“To this day, people still say, ‘You’re weird. You’re crazy.’ I had someone tell me, ‘You need to turn it down.’ I said, ‘No, man. You need to turn it up.’”

Staff Sgt. Trevor Knapp became a believer the first time he heard Barraza speak during his base in-processing briefing. A few months later, when he heard about a job opening for Barraza’s executive assistant, he said he applied right away.

Barraza jokes and laughs  with a group of Airmen before the start of the 2013 Air Force Ball at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Barraza jokes and laughs with a group of Airmen before the start of the 2013 Air Force Ball at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

“The second I left after hearing Chief Barraza, I instantly wanted to go above and beyond and do everything I possibly could,” said Knapp, who is now Barraza’s executive assistant. “You almost need ear plugs around him because he’s so full of energy. It doesn’t matter what he’s talking about, whether positive or negative, you feel all of his energy, and it’s like he’s talking inside of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day, a so-so day or an awesome day. Chief Barraza will make your day better. Period.”

Every item in Barraza’s office is there to teach important values to visitors. He has a lesson for everything, from the poem about the difference between being an eagle or a wolf in life on his wall to the orange reflective vest he wore while cutting grass at the base’s Heritage Park. But usually the first thing visitors see is a chessboard with a pawn in the center. To Barraza, the pawn symbolizes the individual Airman, who he strongly believes is the Air Force’s most valuable asset.

Most Airmen who know Barraza’s story are warmed by his presence, particularly those in the air traffic control tower who remember how he played taps at a memorial service after tragedy struck one of their own. He stood outside in the rain greeting and encouraging mourners as they entered and exited the base chapel.

“Chief Barraza is bottled lightning and infectious energy,” said Master Sgt. Joseph Sollers, the 3rd Wing air traffic control assistant chief controller. “He comes in, and everyone is all smiles, and everybody takes a little break to make sure they get a chance to talk to him and hear his message.”

Young Airmen, in particular, find their command chief’s personality as infectious as they find his background incredible. He never lets them down because his story is important to him, partly because it’s how he landed in the position he’s in today but also because of the influence it has on the Airmen who will one day become the service’s leaders.

Barraza grew up in San Pedro, Calif., and entered the Air Force in July 1989. Prior to his career in the Air Force, he was in a gang beginning when he was 11 years old. The tattoos he has inked on his skin portray his life moments and family.

Barraza grew up in San Pedro, Calif., and entered the Air Force in July 1989. Prior to his career in the Air Force, he was in a gang beginning when he was 11 years old. The tattoos he has inked on his skin portray his life moments and family. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

“We all have a story,” he said. “Everybody has a story, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been shot or stabbed. What matters is that you know you have a story and how to share it. The importance of sharing your story is somebody is going to learn from it.”

Barraza’s story began when he was born to two rival gang members in south central Los Angeles in 1971. His home was the host for many large family celebrations, and the young child admired his father and other family members and noticed the respect they had and wanted it for himself.

“What I noticed over time was the influence of respect. I didn’t know what anybody did. All I knew was when somebody came around, they treated my uncles and father a certain way, and I wanted that same respect.”

A huge void was left in Barraza’s life when a succession of men failed to become positive male role models for him. Eventually, the “homeboys” the 11-year-old Barraza respected began noticing him. One day, a couple of older gang members confronted him.

“I thought this was an opportunity because, as I assessed them and their influence, I saw that people respected them just like I respected my father, aunts and uncles,” he said. “So I wanted to be the same thing. I didn’t know what it was going to take, I just knew I wanted it.”

One day, near the Vincent Thomas Bridge that connects San Pedro with Long Beach, Barraza thought he was just hanging out with the “homeboys and homegirls” he admired. Cars were parked to block the roads in both directions, and suddenly he was pushed into the center of the crowd and surrounded by three boys, each at least four years older than he. They began whaling on him, and as he tried to hit one of them back, another hit him on the back of the head. As the beating continued, he fell to the ground until he heard someone yell “Stop!”

Although Barraza keeps his tattoos covered while in uniform, they remain a constant constant reminder of the life he left in Los Angeles.

Although Barraza keeps his tattoos covered while in uniform, they remain a constant constant reminder of the life he left in Los Angeles. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

But soon the fight resumed, and he was on the ground again, with blood streaming down his face and his white shirt now covered with dirt. After several rounds of similar combat, he heard the word “stop” for the final time, followed by the sound of cheering. As they helped him up, they congratulated him. “Stand up, homey,” a 22-year-old gang member told him. “You’re a man now.”

As his eyes began to focus again, the first thing Barraza saw was the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

“That bridge became the symbol of my life,” he said. “Because that day, I knew I was now part of something big. After that night, my life changed. At 11 years old, I was never going to be that little boy walking around again.”

When he reached home, Barraza didn’t have to tell his mother what he’d experienced. From her own gang background, she already knew and just cleaned his face.

“I wanted to cry, but that man couldn’t cry,” Barraza said. “My mom wanted to cry, but she didn’t cry.”

About a year after his initiation, Barraza, then 12, got shot for the first time. His new friends wrapped his leg, and he walked home, where his mother took him to the hospital.

Another of the contradictions Barraza remembers from that period of his life was he didn’t engage in many of the behaviors his gang brothers and sisters did, such as alcohol and drugs. But he quickly discovered he loved to fight. He was willing to use his fists virtually at any sign of disrespect toward him or his brothers and sisters and soon became known simply as “The Fighter,” much like his mother when she was an active gang member.

Barraza (second row, far right) grew up in San Pedro, Calif., and entered the Air Force in July 1989. Throughout his career, he's served in various positions within the jet engine career field.

Barraza (second row, far right) grew up in San Pedro, Calif., and entered the Air Force in July 1989. Throughout his career, he’s served in various positions within the jet engine career field. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

“When I would kick back with the homeboys on the street, they would be doing their thing,” he said. “But any time someone would talk trash about me, I had one result. ‘Let’s go, homie. Talk trash, throw down.’”

Now, though, his mother tried to get her son away from that life and put him in boxing, where he was just as successful as he was on the streets. Other adults also began planting seeds of hope in the youngster, taking advantages of opportunities the men in his life missed during his childhood. Two teachers, now both deceased, tried to give him more positive outlets than fighting and life on the streets.

“I was conflicted in my own world,” Barraza said. “Somebody was trying to educate me to be more, but I still wanted to go back to that world that I’ve always known. I was a contradiction every day. So I started learning how to shift between the homeboys and the classroom. I had to find ways to control that guy in my new environment.”

But then came the day when another fight changed his life yet again. In the middle of a gang fight at a pizza parlor, Barraza was stabbed in his leg, and he responded with a punch that almost killed a rival gang member, resulting in an arrest and his life in the hands of a judge. The judge gave Barraza the option of a felony assault conviction with 2,500 hours of community service and no jail time or rehabilitation time without a felony on his record. However, no matter which option he chose, more charges could be added if the victim didn’t recover. As the judge demanded an immediate decision, Barraza turned to look at his mother.

“‘Jose, you’ve got to go away,’” she told him. “‘If you come back, you won’t have a life.’”

Barraza said he knew his mother was right, and he had to trust her.

“So with hate in my eyes, I took the second option to go away,” he said.

Barraza walks around a table shaking the hands of Airmen attending a meeting at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Barraza makes it a priority to talk to each NCO before they go to the NCO Academy.

Barraza walks around a table shaking the hands of Airmen attending a meeting at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Barraza makes it a priority to talk to each NCO before they go to the NCO Academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

During his incarceration, Barraza wasn’t just fighting to protect his life, but also from sexual assault, including one occasion when a guard led him into a room where several other inmates were waiting for him.

“I know what it’s like to have a man strip me of my clothes and try to strip me of my manhood,” he said. “I know what it’s like to have someone who I’m supposed to trust, someone in a position of authority who’s supposed to be there to protect me, to walk me down a hallway and take me to a room where I’m thinking I’m going to have a visitor, and when I walk in, I see a group of young men on the other side of the room. I remember fighting for my life in a whole different light.

“I know what it’s like to go to sleep worried about what might happen next to me. But I knew if I ever had the chance to go home, I would never come back again.”

The chance came, and Barraza, now 17, was free again. He came home and found the respect he’d always desired.

“Everybody was looking up to me because I’d done some rehabilitation time,” he said. “That was when I first learned I was a role model. I didn’t know what a role model was yet, but I knew people were looking up to me. But what was crazy was I didn’t want to go back to that life. So when people wanted to throw down with me, I would always think twice.”

Three months before graduating from high school, Barraza got shot for the fifth and final time. As he saw the faces of his mother and sisters at his bedside, he knew his life had to change for their safety.

“If I end up dead, who will take care of my mom?” he asked himself. “It was a defining moment that I could not stay.”

The blue dominating the Air Force recruiting office grabbed his attention because blue was a favored color of his gang affiliation, and the recruiter cinched the deal. To this day, Barraza calls that day his Air Force birthday, “the day when I changed my life.”

Barraza talks to a group of technical sergeants before they head to the NCO Academy at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

Barraza talks to a group of technical sergeants before they head to the NCO Academy at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Barraza answered questions and explained the importance of what they will learn and how they need to apply it to their career. Barraza is the 3rd Wing command chief. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

Barraza credits his commitment to become a leader to a former maintenance NCO early in his career. Barraza was disturbed to see many of his fellow Airmen laughing at the NCO’s enthusiasm and questioned him about it.

“He told me, ‘It’s for all our Airmen,’” Barraza said.  “I thought he was joking, and I even challenged him on his beliefs of leadership. He reminded me to follow.

“None of this: my motivation, my willingness to change, my hooah, none of it would’ve ever been known without Tech. Sgt. Tony R. DeMarini,” he said.  “I credit my change in belief through his leadership. It was he who saw my potential and kept telling me to follow.  He taught me to believe in myself and to believe in a positive future. After that day, I followed and learned.  So even though I appreciate and honor the stories told by the tattoos on my body, I learned to believe why it was important to cover up.”

That is why he wears long sleeves, even when running in 103-degree temperatures in Montgomery, Ala., while there for the Air Force Senior NCO Academy in 2006. Since processing for basic training, Barraza learned to keep his tattoos and background hidden. He has certain tattoos that he wants to keep because they help to tell the story of his life.

In fact, he kept his story to himself until the police officer who arrested him in 1986 came to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to speak about the gang problem. After the officer’s talk, the police officer told the wing commander Barraza could connect to young Airmen better than any police officer or other authority figure could.

It took some convincing from the commander and his first sergeant, but Barraza eventually shared his story. Soon after, Barraza said Airmen were calling for one-on-one counseling and mentorship at his house. He later shared his story at the Air Force Senior NCO Academy at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and again when he returned as an instructor.

Col. Reba Harris takes a group photo of Barraza and a group of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska Airmen during the base's 2013 Air Force Ball. Barraza is well-known throughout the base, not only because of his rank and occupation but from the enthusiasm he always brings when he's talking to people. Harris is the 673rd Medical Operations Squadron commander.

Col. Reba Harris takes a group photo of Barraza and a group of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska Airmen during the base’s 2013 Air Force Ball. Barraza is well-known throughout the base, not only because of his rank and occupation but from the enthusiasm he always brings when he’s talking to people. Harris is the 673rd Medical Operations Squadron commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

The three most influential people in his early life, his former teachers and his mother, are gone now. His mother died of cancer about eight years ago, and Barraza has kept his head shaven to honor her memory and to support anyone who’s fighting the disease. The days of fighting for respect in Los Angeles seem like a lifetime ago.

Still, there are still times when the chief admits his grandmother’s Dr. Jekyll comparison still bubbles to the surface, mostly when he feels strongly about an issue and makes his point clearly and directly. But for the most part, he’s happy spreading his brand of “hooah” sunshine and using his own story to encourage others to share theirs.

“The chance to infect others with positive energy and lift their spirits surrounds us every day,” Barraza said. “Chief DeMarini took advantage of that when he was a technical sergeant and I was an Airman. It doesn’t matter how many or how few stripes we have on our arms, although our voice gets a little bit louder with each new stripe. There’s no contradiction inside me on that – I know I have an opportunity to help them, and I don’t ever want to miss it.”

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  • Ty-Rico Lea

    This is really good.

  • MCPO Michael Davis

    “Shipmate” It is great to see your continued success. You were a great mentor to me while I was the Navy’s liaison at the AF SNCO academy. V/R MCPO M. Davis CTF 67 Command SEL

    • SMSgt Bill Schy

      Great article, I agree Master Chief. You weren’t such a bad mentor yourself.

  • D Vallejos

    It is nice to see one of my mentors (since my days in stripes) being recognized for his hard work and dedication to the Air Force and its people. I am sure I am just one of countless individuals that Chief Barraza has had a positive and everlasting impact on because of his exemplary leadership. – Capt Vallejos

    • Mark Stevens

      Great to see a wonderful man serve our country, God bless you.- Sgt Stevens USAF

  • D Vallejos

    It is nice to see one of my mentors (since my days in stripes) being recognized for his hard work and dedication to the Air Force and its people. I am sure I am just one of countless individuals that Chief Barraza has had a positive and everlasting impact on because of his exemplary leadership. – Capt Vallejos

  • CMSgt (R) Todd DePorter

    Chief…you continue to inspire me and I often share your story with my new co-workers and students I engage at the college I work at. Best of luck and continue being you!!!

  • http://lowdownradio.com Carlos

    This article and video is absolutely fantastic. I’m definitely going to share it with my Airmen.

  • MSgt Mitchell

    I had the blessing of hearing him speak to my NCOA class and it changed my life and career. Thanks for the inspiration and motivation.

  • PJ

    My old supervisor at Edwards. Congrats on Chief! -PJ

  • SMSgt Kari Skaggs

    Great story, Great Airman!!

  • Small_Dose_of _Reality

    It is finally good to know that someone at the top came from low beginnings. I too was in a was in a gang back in NYC. The Air Force preaches diversity but yet like when the Chief mentioned:
    “To this day, people still say, ‘You’re weird. You’re crazy.’ I had someone tell me, ‘You need to turn it down.’ I said, ‘No, man. You need to turn it up.’”

    I get told that I am too rambunctious and my behavior is crude and my tact needs to be addressed. To make this long story short, it is good to see an inner city youth make out the hood and into the executive office. i hope that even with all these layoffs, a low life from NYC can finish his career out.
    The movies Office Space is now a reality, take a second for it to soak in.

  • Major James R. May

    Chief, I stand continually amazed and slack jawed at your drive and motivation. I consider it all blessing and an distinct honor to have served with you. Even though you blew off my step promotion to tech by actually making it! Proud to be your friend. Major James Bubba May, USAF (ret)

  • pullinteeth

    Sad thing is that he wouldn’t even be eligible to join today because of his ink….

  • CMSgt John Bolle

    JAB….I’m glad the AF Family get’s to know your story my friend! You’ve motivated me from the first time we met at NCOA and you’re energy and inspiration has helped me become a better Chief. The “JAB” you presented me is framed with it’s writted history, proudly displayed in my office and means more to me than any recognition I’ve received…period! The Airmen of the 3rd Wing are fortunate to have you as their CHIEF!

  • cwfrizzell

    Great to see JAB continuing to do what he does best… Lead and mentor with passion and an ever ready smile. Lead on!

  • Retired MCPO

    JAB – congrats on that star, Shipmate! I learned a lot about the zoomies from you when I was the Coastie liaison at the AF SNCOA! MCPO Jerry Motyka (Happily Retired)

  • ShrAllen

    You are an inspiration.

  • golfmike81@gmail.com

    Great life, great career, amazing exemple to be followed by many kids/teens… Congratulations from a French Air Force, Chief (ret)

  • Brian Creswell, CMSgt, (Ret)

    Great story and great read. Congrats on the star and an even greater opportunity to lead the Airmen. I have a few former SNCOs in the SFS and tell them to look to you (as well as their SFM) as often as possible for mentorship opportunities.

  • Floremi Aragon

    I admire you, you are an inspiration to anyone who wants to chance his life to be better, go on!!

  • Greg Bean

    Chief, I dont know you, but thanks for the inspiration. As I wind down my career (20 active Mil, 21 civil service) its refreshing to know there are leaders of your caliber influencing our airmen. I’m certain that your Mom is looking down on you and is very, very proud of the outstanding person you have become.

  • TMS

    I worked with this Chief and there is no other Chief like him in the Universe.