JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
There are nearly 500,000 Airmen in the Air Force, including National Guard and Reserve Airmen. Each year, the Air Force recognizes 12 of them for outstanding performance – an honor accompanied by a ribbon to acknowledge superior leadership, job performance and personal achievement.
This year, 11th Air Force Paralegal Manager Senior Master Sgt. Sylvetris Hlongwane is one of the honorees.
“I’ve worked with her since I came to this office in July of 2018,” said Air Force Col. Seth Deam, 11th Air Force Staff Judge Advocate. “She’s an absolute superstar, and is one of the most positive and energetic Airmen and human beings I know, with an incredible work ethic. I fully expect she’ll be wearing the rank of chief master sergeant in the near future.”
Hlongwane joined the Air Force in 1999.
“There were two reasons I joined,” she said. “First, a lot of people on my father’s side of the family were Army. Everyone was so proud of them – I’d see them leave, and I didn’t know exactly what they did in the military, but there was such pride in them and for their service.
The other was that I was in Air Force JROTC, so after that I knew I was Air Force bound. My family just has a long history of selfless service, and I’m glad to be a part of that.”
Initially, she served as a weapons loader, including at then-Elmendorf Air Force Base, where she was a staff sergeant.
“[Weapons] was a lot of fun,” she said. “But over time, I developed different interests, and that brought me to legal. I’d always liked research. One of my friends was in legal, and one day we went to her office, and I watched her interactions. We’re professionals in weapons loading, certainly, but this was just a different level of professionalism, a different way of interacting and speaking. I sat in on a couple of her cases, and it really grew my interest. I wanted to help people that way.”
But making the change wasn’t easy; she tested for technical sergeant but then began making the switch to paralegal. Just after graduating from a challenging legal school at Maxwell Air Force Base, outside Montgomery, Alabama in 2007, she discovered she’d made the cutoff to be promoted.
“After 12 years, I still love it. Mostly because there’s never one thing the same. It’s never the same case, even in the same field.”
While most military personnel are familiar with the Uniform Code of Military Justice and at least the idea of Article 15s or courts-martial, there are fields of law that many people don’t even think of, Hlongwane said.
Legal offices deal with tax law – informing service members about how deployments affect deadlines for filing tax returns or how much tax they pay and the impact of hazardous-duty pay, for example. They also provide briefings in preventive law – intended to keep people out of trouble, such as discussing the ramifications of DUIs or other misconduct.
They also address claims, such as when a service member’s personal property is damaged or destroyed in the dorms or on a deployment.
But one of the more unusual fields Hlongwane works with is operational law, which is incredibly relevant in Alaska.
“Operational law impacts how operations are conducted – often downrange, where we’re dealing with partner nations, but we do a lot of it here,” she said. “We work with Canadian Forces and Alaska Natives, and those kinds of partnerships determine, for example, how and where we fly.”
The 11th Air Force has operational requirements when U.S. fighter aircraft are launched to intercept Russian military aircraft entering the American Air Identification Zone, so the paralegals research issues of operational, international, and military law.
“There’s always a representative from the Judge Advocate’s office in the [611th] Air Operations Center to advise commanders with that, and we paralegals are researching for them while they’re doing so,” Hlongwane said.
She’s been in the field long enough to say with certainty it never becomes repetitive.
“It’s absolutely never boring,” she said. “There’s always something new to learn. There’s no sitting back and saying ‘I’ve been doing this for five years, there’s nothing more I can learn about legal.’ I can have 15 drug cases and there’s something different to learn in all 15.
It can be disheartening at times, but it’s never boring.”
While the variety keeps her engaged, the work has its difficulties as well.
“One of the most challenging aspects of it for me is working with victims, in two ways,” she said. “One, they’ve been through a bad situation, and it can be tough as they’re talking to us to not really react. I have to tailor my response because I want to seek justice for them; I have to be composed. If someone’s been assaulted, a part of me just wants to hug them, but that’s not what they need. I have to be stoic to an extent and stay strong with them.
“The other challenging aspect is that there are victims who – for whatever reason – choose not to go forward,” she said. While some cases such as those regarding sexual assault may continue, the victim can choose to withdraw their participation.
“It’s tough because I understand what it means for the case, but I don’t understand what it means for them,” Hlongwane explained. “They may be under pressure from the person who victimized them, and they’re doing what they feel they need to do. But I know it means that the suspected accused may be free to continue doing whatever it is that brought the victim to us, or do it to someone else. There are a lot of times victims just no longer wish to cooperate, and we have to respect that, but it definitely can be tough.”
With those difficulties, though, come rewards greater than she found in her previous job. Unlike loading weapons, there’s a more tangible connection than hoping the bomb was instrumental in saving lives or disrupting an enemy target.
“The most rewarding thing? Justice. Nothing in claims, nothing in operational law, nothing in taxes is as rewarding as seeing someone who was harmed receive justice. Knowing that we had our Ts crossed and our Is dotted and that person – especially when it’s a child – will never be hurt again, that’s the best.
Loading weapons, I knew there was a possibility that bomb I loaded saved somebody, but in legal, I can see the victim. I can sit in court and hear the testimony. I see in real time the difference I’m making, no question.”
Hlongwane said her success and the justice she’s helped secure for people would not be possible without her teammates and the numerous people who have mentored her and shaped her trajectory.
One stands out – without whom she’d never even have gotten a chance to pursue a legal career.
“If not for [Chief Master Sergeant] David Seia, my retraining would not have been successful. When I was trying to retrain, force shaping was going on. I submitted my package and went on a deployment. I kept contacting the Military Personnel section, but MPF was slammed with other priorities, so it got pushed back, and pushed back, and pushed back, and pushed back again. Finally, it got pushed outside my retraining window and they told me no, it was too late – even though I’d submitted it well within my window."
Chief Seia contacted them and worked with them, and I returned from my deployment and jumped in, too. If not for his mentorship and constant engagement, ‘no’ is the answer I would’ve had. I could’ve not had someone who cared, but he kept engaging and I got considered and accepted.
“He was the type of leader I – and everyone else – felt comfortable talking to. He just took care of everybody in the Maintenance Operations Center. He’s retired now, but he had a huge impact on my career.”
Her family has also been an outstanding source of support, she said.
“I’ve always felt their support, from my daughter to my mother and sister. Even when I’m away from home, I know things are taken care of.”
Largely, though, she credits those who serve with her in the 11th Air Force Legal Office for the recent recognition.
I only got where I am because of the people in my office. We have to lean on each other, have each other’s backs, and pick up a task when someone has to shift focus.”
Air Force Master Sgt. Kendra Mauldin has worked with Hlongwane for the last two years.
“I have nothing but nice things to say about her demeanor and her work ethic,” Mauldin said. “If we need something, it’s no questions asked – ‘I’ve got this going on, I’m not going to be able to make it’ and she jumps right in and takes care of it. I’m honored to serve alongside her. You feed off other people’s energy, and she’s just so happy to lead and pass knowledge along.’”
Deam said Hlongwane has impressed leaders across the Air Force, not just in their office.
She was selected to accompany Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, commander of the Alaskan NORAD region, Alaskan Command, and 11th Air Force on a temporary duty assignment as his senior enlisted advisor for an inquiry. When she returned, Deam said, he received high praise about her from Bussiere and a glowing email from the senior judge advocate (a colonel) advising the investigation, detailing her accomplishments.
“[She is] polished, professional, able to lead in all situations, and a technical expert,” the email said. “She gets things done and works a special magic in removing roadblocks … She was a center of calm positivity in our storm.”
Despite the recognition and honors she’s received, however, Hlongwane remains humble.
The “12 Outstanding Airmen” award is a collective award for that whole office,” Hlongwane said. “I recognize that wholeheartedly – I couldn’t do any of it without the support, backup and encouragement of everyone in there. I couldn’t have been a successful leader if they didn’t give me the opportunity.
“It’s all teamwork. My team is awesome. My team freakin’ rocks.”