Lieutenant Wu blazes diverse trail

  • Published
  • By Matthew McGovern
  • 367th Cyberspace Operations Squadron
As his camouflage uniform darkened as sweat began to soak through, he realized his experience as a marathon runner wasn’t helping the ache from a 40-pound ruck sack.    

1st Lt. Xiaoyang Wu, from the 367th Cyberspace Operations Squadron, managed to finish the marathon-length Bataan Memorial Death March, at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico in March 2023.

“The discomfort on the ruck tied us together with the 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war forced to march 65 miles by the Japanese Army in 1942,” said Wu.

“We thought about the generations serving before us and hoped to inspire the younger generation to do the hard things, and put their self-interests aside and serve,” said Wu.    

Wu‘s arduous journey started 30 years ago in Shenzhen, the fifth most populated city in China.
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“China is a country with almost 1.7 billion people, and growing up, we were taught if you weren’t number one essentially you were nothing,” said Wu. “We started education super early, and I remember doing geometry level math in third grade.”

For Wu, corporal punishment was a big part of growing up, and discipline was instilled at a very young age.

“I just remember sitting in a classroom and the teacher would walk around with a ruler and say, ‘hey are you paying attention?’ and, ‘make sure you get top marks,’ because that is just how it is,” said Wu.  

He was at the top of his class growing up. However, in the 5th grade, his mother decided to move to New York to pursue her education.

“My mom got her [Masters of Business Administration] from the U.S. and when she was there, she realized it was a better environment for me and submitted for my U.S. visa,” said Wu. “I was ten-years old when I arrived in New York, the melting pot of the world.  You have all sorts of cultures and diversity located in close proximity; it was amazing to have approximately eight million people in these five tiny islands. The fact that we moved there is a testament to how unique America is. We had a close knit of Asian communities - Korean, Chinese, and Japanese all spread out throughout the city.”              
Wu knew two or three English words when he started English as a Second Language class the day after he arrived.      
“It was a surreal feeling; walking into your class on the first day not knowing what they were saying,” said Wu. “I sat down next to someone I didn’t know, who didn’t look anything like me. I looked at them smiled and said hello.”

Wu decided to take out a notebook and copy the English words on the board.

“Keep in mind the Chinese characters look nothing like the western Latin characters,” said Wu. “I was writing down something very foreign to me, not knowing what they were saying, and just thinking to myself, what am I doing here?”
Wu decided he would dig deep and immerse himself in the language.    

Wu bought an English dictionary and brushed up on the language every chance he got.      

“I would translate every single word in the dictionary and would make sure I didn’t go to sleep until I got that done,” he said. “Once I finished that, I would take an SAT book and flip to the vocabulary section and pick 20 words. I would remember how to spell them, what type of word it was, how to apply it in a sentence, and the manner in translation so I can associate the one-on-one correlation. Those were long nights where I didn’t sleep often until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and would wake up at 7 a.m. to go to school again.”

Wu tested out of ESL in fifth grade and started 6th grade class with all of the native-born children.

“I was still struggling with pronunciations, but I was good at reading and writing and math,” he said. “I would try to assist other people with their math coursework in exchange for them looking after how I spoke. I thought everything was going to be alright.”

Despite his positive outlook and commitment to do the hard things, Wu struggled when it came time to prepare for college.

“Unfortunately, I crashed and burned,” he said. “I went to a very competitive high school, ranked 40th in the nation. I went from being one of the top students in China to being in the middle of the pack. I was not competitive for the goals my parents had set for me, which was going to an ivy league school.”

After high school, he worked a dead-end job for two years. He desired a challenge. During this turbulent time, he would escape by watching “Star Gate,” a tv show with actors in Air Force uniforms.     

“In the show, Colonel Jack O’Neal and his team of Airmen and scientists would travel through space using an ancient alien traveling device to explore other worlds,” he said. “That show got me hooked and was ultimately what made me decide to join the Air Force; those guys in their blues looked awesome and I had to be a part of it. If science and the ability to serve my country goes together and at the end of it, I’m able to get a degree out of it, why not?”

In late 2012, he joined, and after basic military training, he started his enlisted career in cyber surety at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.
During hurricane Arthur, base leadership sent more than 50 aircraft to Dayton, Ohio, to prevent damage; as part of the network control center, Wu was required to stay behind as others evacuated.

“You could hear the wind howling, the rain pounding, when we heard a knock at the door,” said Wu. “It was Maj. Nelson “AV” Avilesfigueroa, our commander. “He didn’t have to come in to check on us; he has a wife and kids to protect, but he chose to because he cared. That to me is the self-sacrifice that exemplifies being an officer. This set the stage for me and got me to think, maybe I can do this as well.”      

AV shares a similar background to Wu, although he came from Puerto Rico, and he learned his first English words at Basic Military Training as an enlisted recruit. AV noticed Wu’s drive.   

“Wu has three qualities that make him an asset to any organization; they are: incredible work ethic, willingness to get involved, and superb professionalism,” said AV. “From our time serving together, I remember how his remarkable work ethic and technical expertise enhanced our ability to support the wing mission.  His desire to get involved and volunteer for multiple efforts increased the morale and wellbeing of Airmen across the base.  More importantly, his professionalism and character strengthen collaboration, respect, and trust across the unit.”

Using AV’s example, Wu earned a computer science degree in his three years at Seymour Johnson. His degree, combined with his high-grade point average, allowed him the opportunity to earn a scholarship to Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC).

In his junior year, after hearing from other mentors, he “Chose the hard path,” and applied for a master’s program through the Air Force Institute of Technology and was accepted. He completed his degree and after nearly four years of enlisted life, he came back on active duty as an officer for the 367th Cyberspace Operations Squadron, at JBSA-Lackland, Texas. There, he leads Airmen generating information warfare outcomes at the Joint Mission Operations Center.

“When I came back, I realized it’s my duty to help the next younger generation of officers and enlisted to be better than me,” Wu said. “My role here is to inspire the younger officers and enlisted to shoot for the stars. I faced a lot of adversity moving to the U.S., and if I can get here, so can they.”