One Navy Chief’s Journey Overcoming Odds and Achieving Dreams
by U.S. Navy Cryptologic Technician 1st Class Jason Melander
August 10, 2021
Many Sailors who join the Navy face challenges and hardships that are exclusive to the military, such as deployments, being away from loved ones, and moving to new locations every few years.
But, Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) (CTI) Jennifer Cardenas, who is attached to Information Warfare Training Command (IWTC) Monterey Detachment Goodfellow, faced several other unique challenges.
Cardenas was born and raised in Puerto Rico and joined the Navy shortly after 9/11. Around that time, she was already talking to a Navy chief recruiter, but the direct attack on American soil is what helped pull the trigger in the decision to serve her country.
Being from Puerto Rico, Cardenas did not know English, and only spoke Spanish, but her recruiter said they would help her learn English in boot camp.
While in basic training, she soon learned that the Navy wasn’t going to teach her English, but instead they only taught her basic Navy terminology. To overcome the language barrier she faced, she used a little Spanish to English dictionary and studied it whenever she could. She would also listen for commands and follow suit with the other recruits, even if she did not know what the recruit division commanders had ordered.
During her challenging time at basic training, Cardenas received continued support back home from her recruiter, who acted as a mentor for her for years to come. While in boot camp, Cardenas would use the little phone time she got to talk with her recruiter and get advice, which ultimately helped her finish and head off to Defense Language Institute (DLI) for language training.
While there, she was subject to unkind treatment from a few members of her leadership due to her struggles speaking and understanding English. She was threatened with being discharged for failure to adapt or being dropped from DLI and being sent to the fleet as an undesignated Sailor.
Cardenas’ dream from the start of her naval career was to become a CTI chief petty officer, so despite her difficulties, she requested a Captain’s Mast to explain that she deserved a fair chance just like every other Sailor who met the minimum requirements, nothing more and nothing less. The commander made a deal to allow her to pursue Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, but if after two months she was falling behind, she would be dropped from the course.
Cardenas took the chance given to her and began the grueling journey of not only learning English, but Tagalog, too. Whenever she was not in class, she would have her English-Spanish dictionary, as well as her English-Tagalog dictionary, to help her. She ended up cutting out Spanish from her life entirely, such as listening to Spanish songs and TV shows, in order to fully immerse herself in learning the new languages. This proved especially hard because it made her lonely and homesick. Her hard work finally paid off, however, as she graduated second in her class after 64 long weeks.
Shortly after graduating from DLI, she arrived at her first duty station in Hawaii, where she was recognized for her hard work with a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and Joint Commendation Medal as a junior E-5.
From Hawaii, Cardenas transferred to Advanced Language Response Team out of Fort Meade, Maryland, and attended school to learn Hausa, a language spoken primarily in Northern Nigeria. Unfortunately, joint assignments were cancelled before she could really use her language skills. Instead, she was deployed to Iraq in 2009 as a National Security Agency analyst. While in Iraq, she was meritoriously promoted to first class petty officer.
From there, she transferred back to DLI in Monterey, California, to serve as a military language instructor for Spanish. Ever since she met her chief recruiter in Puerto Rico, she dreamed of becoming a chief. She loved what chiefs stood for and wanted to be like her recruiter and other chiefs that had mentored and helped her along the way. Her motivation to be a chief drove her to do outstanding work at DLI and she was recognized as Instructor of the Year.
After her instructor tour, Cardenas qualified as aircrew, where she flew missions in South America. It was there that Cardenas promoted to chief petty officer after 13 years of naval service.
Cardenas attributed her promotion to those that helped her, stating, “I had awesome mentors and friends who helped me improve myself.”
Due to her language barrier, those mentors helped her write evaluations and emails in a way that was understandable. Her mentors would not sugarcoat her flaws either – they offered direct, truthful feedback, which might seem harsh or blunt to some, but only helped Cardenas become a stronger, more confident leader.
When asked what the best advice she could give to someone facing these incredibly tough challenges, she said, “Be humble and don’t forget where you came from. Always work hard and help those around you.”
Despite the odds against her and the challenges a non-native English speaker faces in, not only the Navy, but in America, she conquered them and achieved her dream of making chief.
After making chief, Cardenas did a tour in Key West before finally arriving to IWTC Monterey Detachment Goodfellow to serve as a Spanish instructor once again.
IWTC Monterey Detachment Goodfellow is aligned under IWTC Monterey. As part of the CIWT domain, they provide a continuum of foreign language training to Navy personnel, which prepares them to conduct information warfare across the full spectrum of military operations.
With four schoolhouse commands, a detachment, and training sites throughout the United States and Japan, CIWT trains approximately 26,000 students every year, delivering trained information warfare professionals to the Navy and joint services. CIWT also offers more than 200 courses for cryptologic technicians, intelligence specialists, information systems technicians, electronics technicians, and officers in the information warfare community.
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