On the value of Filipino heritage, mental fortitude, and perseverance

by Mary Lou Cunanan

Air Force plane prepares to land | Contributed Photo

Born and raised in the Philippines, Robert Ybay joined the United States Air Force when he turned 20. While joining the U.S. military was more of a family tradition, he joined because “I needed to find direction and structure in my life,” something anyone in their 20s can relate to. Thanks to his family’s support, Robert eventually found himself in San Antonio, Texas, for basic military training.

In Robert’s life, servitude, strong work ethic, and the passion for caring for others have been natural motivators. “Until today, the Air Force continually gives me a higher purpose. Service members and our families carry burdens and make sacrifices that are inherent to the job. We have missions to fulfill and critical decisions to make, but we don’t survive through those challenges without each other’s support. It’s more than a career joining a profession of arms; it’s our way of life. And we’re trained to face it the best way we can. I wouldn’t replace it for anything in the world.”

Robert Ybay | Contributed Photo

But like all of us, service members also face challenges, both external and internal. For Robert, self-doubt is one of the hardest to overcome. “There are times I doubt if I can do what’s asked of me. That’s where mental fortitude comes in, that internal will to continuously do what’s right even when it may not be the most popular thing to do.” One mantra he keeps in mind for times like this? “Own it. It speaks to holding oneself accountable for our actions. Whether we make a good or bad decision, we have to own the responsibility of making it and learning from it.”

This mindset has certainly led him to the right path as he got promoted to the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force, the rank of Chief Master Sergeant. “I think the biggest achievement is being able to fulfill the potential my parents, mentors, friends, and teammates saw in me as I got promoted. Growing through the ranks, you immediately realize that it’s not just one’s hard work that gets you here. You’re either humble or get humbled and that, even now, is a continual learning process.” He continues to share, “Being in a position of leadership requires a sense of duty, character, integrity, excellence, and selflessness that I am still a student of today. Decisions do not only affect me, but also my team and my family.”

Family is central in Robert’s life. When asked about his greatest source of inspiration, his unequivocal answer was: “Family. One day, maybe 10 years from now, I’ll be retiring from the Air Force. During that retirement ceremony, it would be fun to have a lot of people to enjoy that milestone with me. But if my family wasn’t there, if we weren’t complete, what would be the point? None of that truly matters without them. So I find inspiration with the love they have for me and it brings me the strength and commitment to further my purpose.”

If there were one Filipino value that he could share with the rest of the world, it would be resilience. “Filipinos have long hacked the ability to “Adapt and Overcome.”

Robert’s words prove that deep love for family is something all Filipinos share, whether they’re at home or abroad. But it doesn’t end there. “There are three things that make me proud to be Pinoy. First, perseverance. I’ve met so many Filipinos all over the world doing so many different things, and it never fails me to see the passion and drive they have – against all odds. Even more amazing is how one individual’s challenge is not just their own, but the group’s. You fail together and succeed together. But either way, they do it with a smile on their faces full of hope.”

If there were one Filipino value that he could share with the rest of the world, it would be resilience. “Filipinos have long hacked the ability to “Adapt and Overcome.” I’ve witnessed it personally and watched it in the news until this day. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, massive flooding, fires, poverty, the coronavirus pandemic — it’s not easy to see Filipinos struggling at the moment, but there’s a spark of confidence that Filipinos rise to the challenge because their hope and positivity shine above it. And it’s astonishing how those specific, family-oriented traits are passed on from one heritage to another, from one generation to the next.”

“On a lighter note, he shares that Pinoy food is the second thing that makes him proud to be Pinoy. “There are so many great dishes in the world, and Filipino food tops that list for me. But most of all, food brings you home.”

On a lighter note, he shares that Pinoy food is the second thing that makes him proud to be Pinoy. “There are so many great dishes in the world and Filipino food tops that list for me. But most of all, food brings you home. It’s a fellowship to spend time eating and have a good time.” And third, “Food (again)! I’m dreaming of you Jollibee and Mang Inasal.”

Since we recently celebrated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I asked Robert what his heritage meant to him, and he answered, “The month of May is designated and celebrated by the U.S. as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To date, about 330,000 active duty members are serving in the Air Force, and about 5.5% (18,140) identify as Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. One can imagine the slice of the demographic pie Filipinos are further represented in that number.

Filipino Americans are hosting in-person and virtual cultural events in their base and local communities all over the world. One group was led by a crew of leaders who started the AAPIHM2021 Facebook Page with the theme “Embracing Diversity, Empowering Inclusion, Breaking Barriers.” Amazingly, they’ve worked together to connect with so many people to set up 3-4 events every week to commemorate this month and advance our cross-cultural competencies.”

Chief Master Sergeant Robert Ybay with his wife, Rowena, and children, Derek and Lucas | Contributed Photo

The Filipino heritage is indeed worthy of celebration, and that’s something that was never lost on Robert. Towards the end of our interview, I asked him to share a particular memory that stood out for him tied to his Filipino identity. “Before Weng and I moved to our first assignment together, she knew nothing about the military lifestyle she would unknowingly commit to. Add the parts where that time would also be where she would part ways with her family for the first time and live overseas in a place she’s never been to before.

It’s a fairly common story to many service members who have little to no control over where they would be stationed. I think the biggest difference is when we got to that base. While getting groceries, a kind Filipina came up to us asking if we were Filipinos and immediately invited us to a friend’s place for Thanksgiving. We ended up going, and the result of that was a super tight kinship of hospitality, friendship, and connectedness. We became each other’s hosts for house parties, we are godparents to each other’s kids, travel buddies, and we are who we reach out to when times are tough.

It may have started as a story about being a stranger in someone else’s land, but it turned out to be just the start of a bond that time and geography can’t stop. That was almost 14 years ago, but those were the most precious times for my family and me. Looking back at his journey, “It’s been a humbling and rewarding time being able to serve the last 20 years. I met and married my wife of 14 years, Rowena, had two boys, Derek and Lucas, and throughout the journey made life-long friends.”

In the end, if there were one message he wanted to share with Filipinos and non-Filipinos all over the world, it would be: “Life is short. Care. And care more. It matters.”


Mary Lou Cunanan is a regular Lifestyle columnist of the Philippine Daily Mirror. She is a writer, world traveler, and a Filipina who is very proud of her identity, whose life mission is always searching for covering stories of amazing Filipinos, events, organizations, and businesses globally to celebrate and champion what makes Filipinos amazing wherever they may be.

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