Story by Senior Airman Brady Penn, 349th AMW
Walking along the flight line at Travis Air Force Base, California, you wouldn’t expect to find a 40-year-old playing card. If you do, however, it most likely belongs to Senior Airman Javier Urzay of the 82nd Aerial Port Squadron.
At 39 years-old and with a doctorate Urzay may not fit the expected profile of a Citizen Airman in his first enlistment, but his path here was set in motion decades ago in his native country of Spain. In the summer of 1986 Urzay’s father brought home a deck of unique playing cards that displayed images of various jets from around the world with their unique capabilities. It was the North American X-15, the fastest plane in the deck that sparked his imagination and an interest in aerodynamics.
“I spent many long hours playing with those cards from my father,” Urzay said. “I always looked for the winning card, which was the X-15. That was the first time I ever saw the words, ‘U.S. Air Force’. I often stared at this card and imagined what kind of place such an otherworldly aircraft could be from.”
As Urzay matured, he began dreaming of a day when he could work on planes like the ones he had seen on his playing cards. He pursued academics in Madrid and excelled, winning a research fellowship opportunity on the other side of the world at the University of California, San Diego.
While at UCSD, Urzay received his doctorate in aerospace engineering and was awarded a research and teaching role at Stanford University in the field of hypersonic aerodynamics and propulsion.
“Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to do scientific research, and I wanted to come to the U.S. to study rockets,” Urzay said. “Growing up in Spain, we didn’t have much, but my father encouraged me to be the first person in my family to gain an education. He would always tell me that our most important muscle is our brain.”
Even after his incredible accomplishments in academia, Urzay still wasn’t satisfied. He maintained a burning desire to become part of the organization that made the memorable X-15 possible. In the spring of 2019, he took his first step by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as an aerial porter with the 82nd APS at Travis.
“I joined the Air Force because I’m still intrigued by that logo that I saw as a kid on the side of that X-15,” said Urzay. “And more importantly, I feel I owe a great deal to this country.”
Urzay’s dedication to the ideals and global influence of the U.S. plays a major role in his motivation and desire to serve within the Department of Defense.
“The U.S. keeps the fabric of the free world together,” said Urzay. “It also represents the greatest hopes and opportunities for people who want to achieve their dreams.”
Urzay completed basic military training, overcoming age and cultural gaps between himself and many of the Airmen there.
“I was the oldest person in my training flight, but I was amazed by the diversity that I found there,” said Urzay. “It was an incredible experience, and I met some of the most dedicated people I have ever met while in training”
Urzay returned to California after graduating from his technical training just as the COVID-19 pandemic presented a real world opportunity to make an impact with his service. He quickly became an impactful member of the joint Travis mission, assisting the 60th Aerial Port Squadron with building over 501 tons of cargo for the United States Agency for International Development’s Covid-19 relief mission in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.
“It is incredibly rewarding to support an important mission like the ones I have gotten to assist with,” Urzay said. “All the training and all the hard work is worth it to know that we are helping others overseas.”
Urzay had officially become a member of the world’s greatest air force, however there was still another major milestone left for him to achieve; after over 16 years of living in the U.S. he received news that he would be sworn in as a citizen in December, 2020.
Local news affiliates met him at the field office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in San Francisco to broadcast his swearing in. After his segment aired, Department of Defense authorities contacted Urzay about potentially commissioning to the United States Space Force where he could fully utilize his specialized knowledge.
“He’s waiting to take the next step in his Air Force career, but he’s not wasting this period of time,” said 2nd Lt. Catherine Lubbe, officer in charge of air freight for the 82nd APS. “He does the most where he is, in his work and as a wingman. We had an inspection recently, and he readily lent his spare boots to a fellow Airman who needed them. He really upholds our Air Force values and strives to live them out.”
Urzay continues to serve, teach and research. In spite of his busy schedule, his determination and commitment to country remain strong.
“I don’t have any certainty about the future, but I do believe with all my heart that anything can happen in America if you follow your dreams, help people and don’t let any hurdles take away your positivity,” said Urzay. “After everything I have been able to do here, it feels like it is time for me to do things for America instead of waiting for America to do things for me.”
In a side pocket of his Air Force uniform, Urzay still carries a laminated copy of the X-15 playing card which launched him on his incredible journey all those years ago in Spain.