By Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Maj. Nina Padalino, a 19th Airlift Wing deputy staff judge advocate, recently returned home from a unique deployment to one of South America’s largest cities.
Padalino was an Airman assigned to Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, when she received the rare opportunity to travel more than 2,600 miles to the capital of Colombia.
Padalino’s new role was to be the U.S. Southern Command strategic plans and programs staff judge advocate liaison officer.
Her language skills and cultural experiences prepared her for the job.
“I speak Spanish and have lived in Spain and Mexico,” Padalino said. “Adjusting to the climate and culture of Bogota wasn’t a huge struggle for me.”
Though Colombia has a tropical environment, the seven-month deployment was no vacation for Padalino.
When Padalino arrived in 2014, she was the only U.S. military lawyer stationed in South America. She had huge responsibilities and a multitude of objectives. Some of her tasks included budgeting security assistance programs, contributing in the implementation of military justice reform, and promoting interagency communication within the country.
“The experience was totally different from any other deployment that I’ve been on,” Padalino said. “It is an amazing mission, but it wasn’t easy to prepare for. Colombia’s military justice system is very complicated to understand when compared to our own.”
Colombia is a country with unique circumstances, in terms of military law. There has been a history of internal conflict between the Colombian military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the People’s Army.
Internal strife greatly complicates Colombia’s military law procedures. The law of armed conflict and human rights play a significant role in the spectrum of military operations.
“It was difficult for me to fully understand the challenges that Colombia faces in such a short amount of time,” said Padalino.
Despite the complexity of Colombia’s laws, Padalino contributed in reform of military law by using her knowledge gained in the Air Force to help Colombia create a more unified Judge Advocate General core.
Civil unrest creates situations in Colombia that many U.S. military lawyers would not normally face.
“Military members can be tried in either civilian or military courts,” said Padalino. “It is just one concern among many, but it illustrates the jurisdiction issues faced by Colombia’s separate court systems.”
Padalino helped in getting the separate military and civilian courts to communicate with each other to help build relationships and foundations for military law.
Colombia has a population of more than 48 million people, yet during her deployment, Padalino determined there are approximately 20 military defense attorneys. But that number may change, as Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, has made military justice reform one of his top priorities.
“It feels good knowing that I helped to expand access to justice and ensure the rule of law,” said Padalino. “Colombia is a very important strategic and economic partner of the U.S. I think Colombians are hopeful and ready for change, and there is a lot of potential for it.”
Along with her work experiences, Padalino learned through embracing the culture of Colombia.
“Colombia is a beautiful country with such diversity,” she said. “There are mountains, major cities and Amazon jungles. The people are especially gracious. Colombians are warm, friendly, polite and have great food.”
For Padalino, the one-of-a kind deployment is memorable for her on and off-duty experiences. Just before her departure, she was able to travel to another South American country with her then boyfriend, Nathan.
“We went to Peru and saw Machu Picchu,” she said. “That is where I got the surprise of my life. Nathan proposed to me there. It was always a dream of ours to see Machu Picchu and the deployment provided us with the perfect opportunity.”
Padalino is currently stationed at Little Rock AFB. Since returning, Padalino was awarded a Joint Service Commendation Medal by the U.S. SOUTHCOM chief of staff. She is now back to old business but ready to start her new life with her fiancée.
“I encourage all Airmen to travel and broaden their horizons whenever possible,” Padalino said. “Learning about cultures that you work with is important.”
Padalino has learned from all of her travels and Colombia was no exception.
“I learned how important it can be to get to know people and establish relationships, instead of focusing entirely on business,” Padalino said. “The Colombian people displayed true professionalism, and we can all learn from their desire to move forward.”