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Airman changes AFI, fosters inclusion

A photo of Staff Sergeant Cesar De Los Santos Zapata

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Cesar De Los Santos Zapata, 23d Maintenance Squadron C-130 isochronal inspection craftsman, poses for a photo May 20, 2021, at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. De Los Santos successfully lobbied to change an Air Force Instruction that now requires names typed or written on forms and documents to reflect hyphens, apostrophes or spaces in the Airman's name. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Hayden Legg)

A photo of Staff Sergeant Cesar De Los Santos Zapata's name tape

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Cesar De Los Santos Zapata's name now includes all appropriate spaces in official forms and documents thanks to his efforts to change Air Force Instruction 36-2608. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Hayden Legg)

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

Shortly after in-processing to Moody, Staff Sgt. Cesar De Los Santos Zapata was caught off guard when he saw his name read DELOSSANTOSZAPATA upon logging in to the computer.

A seemingly routine trip to military personnel flight to get the spaces put back in his name quickly turned into a mission to affect institutional change.

“I signed in to the computer one morning after in-processing, and that’s when I noticed my name was all cramped up,” said De Los Santos, 23d Maintenance Squadron C-130 isochronal inspection craftsman. “My name means everything to me. It reminds me of who I am and the place that I belong to; I may be here, but every time I get called it’s a Spanish last name, so it reminds me where I came from.

“I’m Puerto Rican and I’m super proud of that. I know that other people going through this are feeling the same way. You wouldn’t identify yourself with your name being wrong, because it’s not your name.”

De Los Santos figured a quick trip to MPF would clear up his issue but, faced with the question, MPF personnel told De Los Santos that Air Force Instruction 36-2608, Military Personnel Records Systems, at the time, instructed personnel to “not include hyphens, apostrophes, or spaces between sections of a compound name.”

As a maintainer, De Los Santos is familiar with technical orders, which are maintenance instructions that offer clear reasoning for why certain limitations are in place. Because of this, De Los Santos really started digging into an explanation as to why the Air Force wouldn’t allow spaces in his name.

“There was no logic to it, so I decided to talk to my first shirt and explain what was going on,” said De Los Santos. “After a meeting my shirt had with him, the command chief suggested I write a letter about how this has impacted me personally.

“Everything that I’m feeling right now, all the frustration ... I wanted to put it down on paper,” he continued. “I wanted to make sure that whenever someone read it they would actually feel the same frustration and concerns and everything that I was going through.”

De Los Santos’ letter, “It Makes Me Who I Am,” was sent to the Air Force Office of Diversity and Inclusion and eventually made its way to the Pentagon.

“Within a matter of days, this issue was being investigated and discussed at the Headquarters Air Force level,” said Master Sgt. Timothy Riley, 23d Maintenance Squadron first sergeant. “This goes to show you the positive impact one Airman can have on thousands and thousands of Airmen throughout our Air and Space Forces.”

As of April 2021, AFI 36-2608 now states, “names typed or written on forms and documents are written to reflect any hyphens, apostrophes, or spaces in the officer or enlisted Airman’s name.”

“I was in awe and impressed by how fast the process went,” said De Los Santos “I just wrote the letter and hoped that somebody would do something about it. I had no expectations other than that I wanted it to change.”

Fast-tracking solutions to Airmen issues is among the top priorities of Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. and his call to action empowers Airmen, such as De Los Santos, to fight for positive change.

“Change is hard for people, there is always going to be somebody going against you who doesn’t necessarily agree with what you think,” said De Los Santos. “Be a better version of yourself every day, and make sure that those who follow you share the same vision and have the right tools to achieve the same results.”

Airmen wishing to push for a necessary AFI change can do so by working with their chain of command and using Air Force Form 847, Recommendation for Change of Publication.