“I didn’t think I would have a life and that it would be nothing but military 100 percent of the time,” said Senior Airman Upasana Nepal, a reserve separations technician assigned to Headquarters Air Reserve Personnel Center, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado. “Education is my priority and I did not think I would have time for that. BMT 24/7 was my impression of being in the military.”
Nepal, whose last name is the same as her native country, was prepared for a “Major Payne” scenario, a popular movie from 1995, when she went to Basic Military Training in August 2017. Soon after arriving at basic training, Nepal found that “it was nothing like that at all" and added that the hardest part for her was living with 40 other women and forming a team.
Her expectations of military life were shaped by the Hollywood movies she watched as a teenager growing up in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital. After her father fled Bhutan in the early 1990’s, he settled in Kathmandu to raise his family while in refugee status there. Though she was a native of Nepal, she and her siblings were classified as refugees because of her father’s status.
“I was 15 when I could comprehend that I would never be granted citizenship in Nepal and I was perplexed,” said Nepal. “I was a teenager and the idea that I was a refugee started to become uncomfortable. It comes with this stigma and I felt out of place.”
This all changed in 2011 when her family was given the opportunity to join other family members in Colorado.
“A change was exactly what I needed to rediscover myself and embrace my background,” said Nepal. “Although I was far away from my homeland, somehow, I was very much at home when I started meeting people with similar background and stories as myself.”
Soon after arriving in country, Nepal began to consider military service after serving in her school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training program. But, when the time came to doing paperwork to join the Air Force, thoughts of “BMT 24/7” passed through her mind again, preventing her from going through with it.
Four years later Nepal was working as a patient care coordinator at a Denver area mental health facility, hoping to enroll in a nursing program. While she had been accepted into the program, her citizenship was delayed preventing her from being able to qualify for scholarship opportunities. During this time a chance encounter with a Reserve Citizen Airman changed the course of her life.
“I was going through this phase of dilemma, how to pay for school, work, and not get myself into debt,” she said. “And that’s when Gabe asked, ‘What about enlisting in the Air Force?’”
Staff Sgt. Gabriel Toepel, a points management technician at HQ ARPC, was also working as a patient care coordinator when the two met. He told her how the Reserve is not the military organization she thought it was and how it is like “a second family.” He then introduced her to other reservists so she could learn about their individual experiences.
This is how she discovered that she could have a life outside of the military as he explained that it would be a commitment of one weekend a month and two weeks a year after basic training and technical school were complete.
“I finally became comfortable with the idea, but was still anxious about basic training and military life in general,” she said. “But I thought, ‘Ok, if I can uproot my life from Nepal after 17 years and move to the United States, then I can certainly do this.’”
Five years after she reconsidered joining the Air Force Reserve, she understands what Toepel meant when he said the Reserve is like a “second family.”
“Once I started at ARPC, I knew exactly what he was talking about,” said Nepal. “My primary friends are my military friends, the people I work with. I didn’t have camaraderie like this in my civilian life ever.”
Nepal has struck a healthy balance that many reserve component members strive to achieve.
“I’ve been able to balance work, school, and life, which is incredible,” she said. “I’m so glad to be a part of this organization and very happy with the decision of being a personnelist. This has been the ideal situation for me for where I am in this chapter of my life.”