Passion and commitment to mission success, an Asian American Airman’s story

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Anneliese Kaiser
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

As a young girl who immigrated with her family from Thailand, Airman 1st Class Tanjai Ploykao, a 92nd Force Support Squadron services Airman, endured a 15-year long journey and accomplished her goal of receiving her U.S. citizenship.


Ploykao is from an island called Phuket, a province of Thailand, where she lived with her grandmother, parents and her sister.


“In Phuket, I attended a private international school,” Ploykao said. “Everyone is pretty kind and open to other languages and cultures. It’s a lot different from Thailand in the big cities like Bangkok, it was always kind of a culture shock to go there.”


Ploykao and her family loved island living, but her father decided he wanted the family to move to the United States in 2008.


“My father didn’t want us to sit on the island and not explore the world,” Ploykao said. “My mom, dad, older sister and I moved to Seattle in 2008 to open a family restaurant.”


Following the economy crash in 2008, Ploykao’s family restaurant struggled, forcing her parents to work multiple jobs and long hours to help their family get by. These struggles would then inspire Ploykao’s older sister.


“In 2012 my older sister decided to join the U.S. Army,” Ploykao said. “She wanted to help my parents with finances, so my sister shipped out while I was in middle school and got stationed overseas, that’s the last time I saw her.”


After her sister departed, as a junior high student, Ploykao started thinking about what she wanted for her future. Not yet thinking of the military lifestyle, she heard about a local aviation high school and hoped for the opportunity to go.


“My dad went to aviation school in Thailand and worked for Thai Airway,” Ploykao said. “He would take me to work and let me go on flights with him which inspired me to want a career in aviation.”


Ploykao got accepted to the aviation high school in Washington, and taking an interest in technology, went on to graduate with flying colors. Unfortunately she could not continue onto higher education because she hadn’t received her green card.


“I thought I was going to get my green card in high school, but it got pushed back. I was stuck and it was heartbreaking,” Ploykao said. “Every day I would run after the mail cart, only to eventually find out they had sent my green card to the wrong address.”


Despite the heartbreaking setback, Ploykao received her green card in August 2019 and began searching for opportunities that would eventually lead her to joining the Air Force in 2020. Due to a lack of citizenship, Ploykao was not qualified serve in any cyber or aviation jobs; however, she was able to qualify as a services Airman.


Upon her arrival to Fairchild, Ploykao’s supervisor noticed her technological skills and recommended she apply for an internship position in the 92nd Air Refueling Wing’s Innovation Cell, “StratoFI”.


“The StratoFI intern program is highly developmental in nature and purpose,” said Capt. Sean Johnson, 92nd ARW IC, StratoFI chief technology officer. “Tanjai and the other interns have made impressive strides in understanding problem solving methods, new technology, and project management skills to bring back to their units.”


Since getting accepted for the position, Ploykao began developing an app that will help process fitness assessment scores better and more efficiently.


“The Innovation Cell is a way for Airmen, who wouldn’t normally be heard, to get a chance to pitch and create their ideas,” Ploykao said. “My innovation is a PT test app. The reason it doesn’t already exist is because no one has stepped up yet, and I’m the Airman that’s going to.”


For Ploykao, commitment and passion are what drive her to reach her goals no matter the obstacle. After a long journey of hardship and adversity unlike most others, Ploykao’s dream of becoming a U.S. citizen finally came true on April 11, 2022.


“I feel like I finally belong in the U.S.,” Ploykao said. “I want people to know that when non-citizens join the military they have sacrificed a lot to come here and have skills to share. I just got my citizenship and my security clearance and it took 15 years but it was well worth it.”


Through the commitment, passion and innovations of Airmen like Ploykao, Team Fairchild can continue to strive towards becoming a stronger and more diverse force, as the world’s premier air refueling wing.