Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander Ivan Benitez-Aguirre has conquered much during an extensive career in the Australian Defence Force.
But there is one thing he is yet to master.
After calling Australia home for more than 34 years — he still doesn’t have an Aussie accent.
“My kids all sound Australian because they were born and grew up here, but I don’t have one [an accent] at all,” he said.
“I guess I came too late to make it a part of my phonetics.”
The twang of the Aussie vernacular — known for its long vowels and inflections — had first stumped the young teenage immigrant.
Born in Ecuador, he moved with his family to New York City where he completed high school before shifting to Australia in 1988.
“Australian English was slightly different, and it took some getting used to,” WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre said.
These days the 49-year-old is far more at ease with the Aussie turn of phrase.
“Now when I hear the familiar Australian accent it just feels like home.”
In fact, the Wing Commander’s adept skills with the English, Spanish and Portuguese languages has led to his formal recognition as a Defence Force linguist, serving as an interpreter for non-speaking military brass at high-level meetings.
"“It feels amazing to know you are not only serving in an important role but to also be acknowledged for it."
WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre is among an increasing number of immigrant Australians who have embraced a career in the ADF.
Yet it might never have happened were it not for the tenacity of his parents, who he credits for making the difficult decision to move to an unfamiliar country on the other side of the world.
"They left their established lives and professions, their family and friends and all their valued possessions, and gathered the strength to leave and not look back."
The move paid off.
WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre’s entire family was granted the chance to fulfill their dreams.
His younger sister Cynthia became a senior government lawyer. His brothers Paul and Terry became a paediatric
specialist and senior public servant respectively.
WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Having completed training and postings in everything from air traffic control to military public affairs and command appointments, WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre has since notched up deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor.
He was most recently embedded as a senior ADF officer in the NATO mission, Resolute Support in Afghanistan.
For his efforts, he was awarded a United States Meritorious Service Medal, a Resolute Support (RS) Mission Commander’s (4 Star General) Commendation and a RS Chief of Staff (3 Star General) Commendation and the Italian Cooperation Cross.
Those who have worked closely with WG CDR BenitezAguirre suggest he hasn’t just set a path for other migrants to follow; he has become somewhat of a trailblazer, changing attitudes and breaking down the stereotype so commonly associated with the image of the average Australian Defence Force recruit.
"“When I landed in Iraq on my first deployment as part of the Coalition Forces in 2003, people would ask where I was from and when I told them, ‘Australia’ they wouldn’t believe me."
“I obviously didn’t look like the typical Australian recruits, so I almost felt like I had to prove myself.”
In the years that followed, he said more migrants have charted a career than ever before.
Though he admits there is still work to be done.
He remains the only full-time, Ecuadorian-born Air Force member.
WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre still remembers attending a 2010 commanding officers’ conference and being the only tan-skinned officer in the room.
He joked with them at the time, using humour to make a serious point.
"I told them we needed a bit more salt and pepper in the room. Everybody laughed but I know they understood what I meant.”"
More than a decade on, the number of non-European Defence members is on the rise.
“There are young people from multiple backgrounds — Asian and Indian, African and Latin America — and I think the more we can make provision for them, the more they can understand the enormous opportunity before them,” WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre said.
"People who come from other cultures and other countries bring great skills that are needed and wanted and appreciated."
A Defence spokesperson said that a diverse and inclusive Australian Defence Force continues to enhance the Force’s capacity to respond to the rapidly evolving strategic environment.
“Defence aims to attract the best talent, including people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and provides a range of opportunities for Australian citizens from a broad range of backgrounds, skills, expertise and interests,” the spokesperson said.
WG CDR Benitez-Aguirre said he now feels that he is not only an Australian — but somebody who has contributed to the rich fabric of the ANZAC spirit.
"“I am proud to be considered, even in a small part, as contributing to the ANZAC tradition, especially now that my oldest son is also a serving officer in the Australian Army and my two youngest children are in the Air Force cadets."
“Through this, we have begun new traditions, linked to our new home and country, while at the same time we aim to keep the many valuable customs and traditions from our people.
“I see my Defence service as a way to acknowledge and demonstrate my appreciation of the great opportunities Australia has given my family, and through my service I feel a great satisfaction and integration into Australian society and culture.
“I can proudly say that Australia is a fair land — not perfect — but very fair. It is a place where anyone who works hard, has discipline, drive and passion can achieve their dreams."