By Xanthe Pajarillo
“YOU were in the military?! You don’t look like it!”
This is the most common reaction I get when people find out I was in the Air Force. I don’t blame them.
Hollywood movies often portray military veterans as hefty, muscular dudes who yell at people a lot. I, on the other hand, am a tiny Filipina with a low-key demeanor. And being blessed with the family genes, I also look like I just started junior high and haven’t completely passed puberty yet. Once while in uniform, a Whataburger cashier asked if I was in JROTC.
In reality, the military is extremely diverse. While I was stationed in Texas, I met airmen from Cameroon, the Philippines, Colombia, Korea, and many other places. I appreciated how the military was a true melting pot of cultures and personalities because that was the community I grew up in.
Take me, for example. Joining the military was never on my radar. My Grandfather was a Philippine Navy officer and a survivor of the Bataan Death March during the second World War. My Dad and Uncles were members of the US Army, but I was the last person anyone expected would join their ranks. Ever since I was a child, I was a creative at heart.
Most of my youth was spent moving from one place to another. I was raised by Filipino parents on an American base in Germany from age three to thirteen. It was a real culture-clash and I constantly felt like I was existing in between worlds. At home my family would say, “You’re so Americanized!” At school my friends would say, “You’re so Asian!” This insider-outsider perspective later influenced the type of stories I would be interested in telling. I appreciate it now because it led me to be more tolerant and empathetic as I got older.
Drawing, photography, music, and movies helped me relate to others. In fifth grade, my self-made South Park comics were passed around and praised — with the exception of the substitute teacher who called my mom about my “disturbing cartoons.” We eventually moved to Virginia when I was high school and I became a songwriter-guitarist in a screamo band, convinced we’d be on the lineup of Warped Tour by our senior year. (We weren’t.) I planned to pursue a career as a Still Photographer for movies instead and was accepted to various art schools up and down the East Coast.
One afternoon, I saw a pair of Air Force recruiters outside the school cafeteria. I was watching a TON of Jimmy Stewart movies at the time (so much so that I began to speak in his accent) and learned he was a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Out of curiosity, I scheduled a meeting with the recruiters with no real intention to join. The more I thought about it, the more interested I became. The challenge of a military lifestyle piqued my interest even if I did not see myself as a fighter. (Neither did anyone else.) Enlisting was a way to prove to myself that I could exist outside my comfort zone and, at the same time, support my country directly. A few months after graduation, I signed on the dotted line and was sent off to Lackland AFB for boot camp. My dad told me, “I never thought I’d see my name on another uniform.”
While in the Air Force, I did my best to keep my creative juices flowing. I played at open mics, made silly videos with friends, and photographed my unit’s events. As much as I thrived in my squadron, I longed for more opportunities to be creative. I told my superiors and co-workers that I was planning to exit military life for the arts. “Paja…” (they called me Paja since my full last name Pajarillo was too difficult for them to pronounce), “You should re-enlist. The economy is bankrupt and you might not be able to get a job.” This terrified me. I had two options: re-enlist for four more years and risk sadness, or pursue art school and risk homelessness. After months of deliberation, I made the decision to say goodbye to the Air Force. When my 5-year enlistment was up, I dyed my hair blue, traded in my combat boots for Yo Gabba Gabba Vans, and drove to Los Angeles to attend California Institute of the Arts as a Photography and Media major.
Then I got ovarian cancer. I’m always hesitant to tell people I’m a cancer survivor because I had zero time to process it. The doctors couldn’t confirm it was cancerous until the tumor was sent to the lab. The symptoms included excruciatingly painful cramps, peeing constantly, and looking like I was one month pregnant — and I assure you, there was no chance of me being pregnant unless I was carrying the next savior of humanity. The doctor confirmed a dermoid cyst was growing inside of me — which is a tumor with teeth, hair, and limbs! It sounded like a freakish nightmare fetus. I dropped out of my first semester at CalArts to have surgery and my mother flew in from Germany to take care of me. She even slept with me at the hospital my entire stay because she wins at parenting. My father was deployed in Iraq and wanted to come, but I told him not to worry. As of today, I am grateful to say I have been in remission for five years.
After my recovery, I returned to CalArts where I fell head-over-heels in love with filmmaking. The collaboration, challenges, and unpredictability were incredibly fulfilling! To explore my newfound passion, I took film courses, volunteered on set, and interned at my local media station, SCVTV. I wanted to be an intern at HBO, but felt I was too inexperienced. Despite that, I applied anyway. The worst they could say is… well, nothing — because they don’t even reply to rejected applicants.
To my astonishment, I got the summer internship. Apparently, a combination of blind faith and resilience works sometimes. My mother cried tears of joy. My father asked if I could get Game of Thrones spoilers. (I couldn’t, even if I tried.) The interns had a speaker series with executives and one piece of advice stuck with me. Casey Bloys, who was Executive Vice President of Comedy at the time (now President of Programming) told us: “People get stuck in jobs hoping it’ll lead them to where they want to be. Whatever job you want, just do it.” I told myself, “I’m going to make films!” And I did just that.
All of these experiences planted seeds for my web series, AIRMEN. Unfortunately, in Hollywood military movies, veterans are limited to representation as gallant heroes or PTSD sufferers. This contributes to stereotypes and further deepens the civilian-military divide. With AIRMEN, I want to change that. It’s a story about a group of Air Force troops navigating life during peacetime operations. The characters include A1C Magat (a Black Filipino who is exploring her identity), SrA Bates (a gay airman in a long distance relationship), AB Jayden (A Security Forces airman with a Mormon upbringing) and 2dLt Anders (a Filipino pilot student).
Additionally, I cast Marine Corps and Navy veterans in the lead roles to bring authenticity to the story. Military actors should portray military roles. The military lifestyle is not something an actor can understand by sending them through a few weeks of boot camp. I remember watching a film with my father where the soldiers’ hair and uniforms were sloppy. He scoffed and said, “I can’t watch this.” Details matter to veterans. When an actor executes a parade rest incorrectly, we cringe.
AIRMEN is a salute to my fellow veterans, but also an opportunity for audiences to learn who we are beyond the uniforms. We have failures, successes, and insecurities just like everyone else. I believe this connection will be the first step in people relating to each other as humans, first and foremost, then as civilians and veterans. AIRMEN launched a Seed&Spark campaign on July 16 to help finance the series. I hope you’ll join us in bringing this project to life: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/airmen
Xanthe Pajarillo is a filmmaker, musician, photographer, and USAF veteran from Germany and Virginia. She is driven by a duty to tell stories that expand people’s empathy towards one another. She received a BFA in Photography and Media from CalArts, and will begin her MFA in Film and TV Production at USC this fall.