TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Sono un aviatore Americano.” When translated, these words represent the bridge between two different lives for Air Force Airman Dimas Bernacchia -- the life of an Italian immigrant and the life of an American airman.
Born in Senigallia, Italy, Bernacchia spent much of his childhood traversing Europe and the Italian peninsula. His father, Giulio Bernacchia, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Italian air force, flew the NE-A3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft for NATO forces in the first Gulf War.
"Growing up, I never really saw much difference between the Italian and American air force; I just saw Air Force in general," Bernacchia said. "Ever since I was really young, I've always had this thing in the back of my mind about the military, and I think that ties back to my father."
Early Exposure to American Culture
During the early years of his life, Bernacchia experienced different aspects of American culture, with his father being stationed at a joint base in Germany. He attended American schools, and surprisingly, English served as his first language.
"Moving back to Italy, the teachers couldn't understand me. They would ask me to write stuff down, and I would write it down in English,” he said as he laughed about the memory. “I remember I was returning an assignment with a big X on it, and the teacher said, ‘This is all in English.’"
Though Bernacchia grew accustomed to speaking Italian, his parents maintained his dual language proficiency by watching movies in English.
"We watched a lot of movies," he said. "My parents knew English was important and would give me more opportunities in the world."
Bilingual Ability Opens Doors
His bilingual ability did indeed open doors. At the age of 22, Bernacchia applied for a one-year program to work at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
"I didn't even know what job they would have me doing. I was just excited to go," he said. "Working at Disney was my bridge to the United States. It gave me a chance to learn and experience American culture at its fullest."
Bernacchia spent the year as a waiter at one of the park’s restaurants. He embraced the culture, excelled in his profession and met Elizabeth, the woman who would one day become his wife. The year flashed by, he said.
He returned to Italy after the program ended, but eventually returned to Disney as a corporate-level manager for the company's food and wine festival.
Giving Back to the United States
"At one point I looked at my life and thought, 'I have a family, a good job, but I want to give something back to the United States,’" Bernacchia said. "I wanted to pursue something that has always been in my mind. I decided to enlist in the Air Force so I could have a chance to serve this country that has been so great to me, and at the same time, fulfill this long-lasting dream of being in the Air Force and being a part of something great."
He left for basic military training March 25, 2014 -- still as an Italian citizen. After technical training to become a financial management comptroller, he arrived here in the early fall as a member of the 60th Comptroller Squadron. He now had his chance to apply for American citizenship.
Attaining U.S. Citizenship
As a service member, Bernacchia fell under a special provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that expedites the application and naturalization process. Meeting the qualifications to become a U.S. citizen, he raised his right hand Sept. 3 to take his oath as an American citizen.
"I remember walking out of the building feeling as if I had somehow won the lottery,” he said. “It's a surreal feeling."
Bernacchia said his plans have yet to be written. For now, he explained, his focus centers on his work within the comptroller squadron and his role as a husband to his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Abigail.
"Anything can happen," he said. "I was without a job in Italy, then I was working at Disney, and now I'm in the United States Air Force, so who knows what is going to happen next?"