Telling the ATEC Story: The People Behind Test & Evaluation - Mireya Balcazar

By ATEC G 3-5April 17, 2024

People are always surprised to learn that Mireya Balcazar, pronounced Me-Ray-A, doesn't like visiting hot places even though she has lived in Yuma, Arizona, one of the hottest places in the U.S., since she was 12. Situated in the Sonoran Desert, Yuma's temperatures can soar up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August and even higher during heatwaves. Balcazar says the only exception she would make would be a trip to the Caribbean Islands because at least there's plenty of water.

For the last 39 years, Balcazar has worked at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, or YPG, a subordinate organization of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC. Located in the southwestern part of Arizona, near the city of Yuma, YPG is one of the largest military installations in the world. Dedicated to testing a wide range of military equipment and technology, one of YPG's primary functions is ensuring that the equipment and systems used by Army Soldiers perform reliably and effectively when used in real-world conditions. YPG tests equipment for durability, effectiveness, and safety before deploying them for use in military operations around the world.

Since June 2022, Balcazar has worked as a program analyst for the Range Operations and Training Division, or ROTD, at the Yuma Test Center, or YTC. As the government credit card holder, Balcazar is responsible for all credit card purchases for the entire division, plus preparing and executing ROTD’s budget and monitoring its funds throughout the year. Balcazar serves as the alternate to the hand receipt manager and assists in preparing the paperwork for all accountable items and inspecting and facilitating the turn-in of all government equipment. In addition, she is the facility manager, training coordinator, telephone control officer, records manager, the point of contact for the automated time and attendance and production system, or ATAAPS, and the SharePoint content manager for the division's intranet site. When Balcazar isn't busy attending to her other tasks, she mentors her coworkers. She helps guide, advise, and support them in achieving their career and academic goals.

Balcazar is used to shouldering a lot of responsibility and learned early in life how to take charge. Balcazar was born in San Luis, a city in the northwestern part of the Mexican state of Sonora, which sits right at the U.S. border next to Yuma. Balcazar and her five siblings were raised by their single mother, Gloria, on a small ranch in San Luis. Her mother worked hard to provide for her children and depended on Balcazar to care for her younger siblings while she was away. When she was six, Balcazar and her siblings were sent to stay temporarily with her maternal grandfather's family. Every day, she had chores to perform—fetching water and scrubbing and laundering her sibling’s clothes by the creek were just a few.

When her mother met and married their stepfather, Willie Hatcher, and moved the family to Yuma, where Hatcher lived and worked, Balcazar had already become her mother’s right hand. With a maturity beyond her years, she cleaned the house, did the laundry, and helped cook the family’s meals. Today, even though Balcazar is now 60 and her youngest sibling is 41, she still feels a sense of responsibility for her sibling’s well-being.

Balcazar’s stepfather was a firm believer in the power of education, prioritizing schoolwork and studying. When she and her siblings moved to the U.S. from Mexico in June 1975, they didn’t speak English. Her stepfather made sure Balcazar and her siblings dedicated their first summer in the U.S. to learning English so they would understand the language by the time school started in the fall. Balcazar recalls it was several months before she knew enough English to understand what was happening at school.

During the summer months, her stepfather didn’t allow them to use their time idly. The three oldest kids—Balcazar, her sister Adriana, and her brother Manuel, were sent to stay with their maternal grandmother and her family in California. They worked in the vineyards, picking grapes, and in the cotton fields, clearing weeds. At the end of the day, their hands were blistered, and their shoulders and backs were sore. After two summers toiling in the hot California sun, Balcazar made up her mind that she would get a job working in an air-conditioned office.

Although strict, her stepfather taught Balcazar and her siblings many valuable life lessons. He instilled in them the importance of finishing what you start, fiscal responsibility, and the virtues of hard work. He urged them to become avid and lifelong readers and encouraged them to read something every day.

To her stepfather's credit, Balcazar loved going to school and had an affinity for math. She ranked 56th out of 490 students when she graduated from Yuma High School in 1982. Although she was an exemplary student, Balcazar regrets not challenging herself with tougher, more advanced courses and not completing her college education. Nevertheless, she did earn an associate degree in general business in 1985 from Arizona Western College, a junior college in Yuma.

Balcazar’s professional journey started at YPG while she was still in high school. She worked three hours daily in the housing department as part of her school's on-the-job training program. The civilian employees helped her create a resume and complete the paperwork to apply for her first job as a clerk in the Plans and Services Division of the Engineering Department in June 1984. By the time Balcazar landed her first job, her stepfather was already a fixture at YPG. He worked in Mission Control for many years until he retired. After battling COVID-19 complications, he passed away in 2020, leaving behind a legacy of resilience and tenacity.

Balcazar married young and had her first child at 24, followed by a second child three years later. She was still determined to complete her four-year degree and went back to college to finish what she started. Despite her determination, the instability of her marriage, the realities of motherhood, and financial constraints got in the way. With only a few college courses under her belt, she was forced to put her academic goals on hold. Eventually, the thought of returning to college began to feel like an unattainable dream.

Balcazar said her journey through motherhood did teach her an invaluable lesson though: the impossibility of shouldering everything alone. By now a mother of three, she marveled at her own mother’s tenacity in raising six children singlehandedly while she struggled to raise three kids on her own. For Balcazar, being a single mother of three was far more difficult than she ever imagined, but she says it became increasingly easier when she overcame her reluctance to ask for and accept support from friends and family.

Balcazar’s struggles, however, weren’t confined to her personal life alone; her professional life also presented its own set of challenges. Early in her civilian career, she endured a workplace culture dominated by men. She says she was never made to feel she was a part of the team; instead, she felt isolated and unwelcome. It wasn’t an environment where she felt comfortable asking questions or for help and she says none was ever offered. Far too often, Balcazar says she was on the receiving end of comments that were meant to belittle her Mexican heritage and Spanish accent. At the time, Balcazar said she didn’t know how to speak up for herself and that there was no one to speak up for her.

Thinking back on her journey, Balcazar recognizes she was often her own toughest critic and oftentimes created hurdles for herself. She admits she should have been more vocal and proactive. Her own apprehension became a restraint and fed her desire to blend into the background so she could focus solely on her work unobserved. Her acute shyness not only prevented her from seeking help but also prevented her from asking questions. Balcazar blamed herself for the time lost that should have been spent advancing her career goals. With hindsight, she came to understand that to be her best self, she first needed to believe in her own capabilities.

The contrast between Balcazar’s past and present self is apparent—not only to herself but to her friends, family members, and coworkers. When she reflects on her evolution, it’s with a sense of pride. She says that despite her numerous trials by fire, or maybe because of them, she’s grateful because they all forged an inner strength that led to her becoming the confident and assertive civilian professional she is today. Previously plagued by self-doubt, she was afraid to speak on topics that might show her lack of knowledge, so she chose silence over participation. Today, she engages in conversations with hard-won self-confidence and trusts in the value of her contributions. Her newfound self-assurance is what she admires the most—a far cry from the self-doubt that used to dog her early professional endeavors. What led to her transformation? She credits it to the mentors who invested in her growth and genuinely rooted for her success. She says they played a pivotal role in shaping her into the person she is now.

Tim Szymanski, a former supervisor, was an instrumental figure in her career. Before she was promoted to program analyst, she worked as a range scheduler for many years. It was while she was a range scheduler that she met Szymanski, who Balcazar says saw more potential in her than she had ever seen in herself. Szymanski entrusted her with additional duties and expanded her vision of what she could accomplish and who she could become.

In Balcazar’s current role, Omar Silva, her boss, and the ROTD division chief, is another mentor who saw her hidden potential and worked with her to maximize it. Balcazar says she regards Silva as more than a supervisor; he is a friend and a confidant who empowers her with his trust, which enables her to thrive in the workplace with minimal oversight.

Balcazar says if she could, she would give her teenage self the advice she wishes someone had given her. She would tell herself to stay in school, learn as much as she could, follow through with college, and get that bachelor's degree. But most of all, she would tell her to dare to venture beyond her comfort zone. She would instill in her younger self a sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. Balcazar says she admires those individuals whose fearlessness propels them to take risks based purely on faith and the belief they won’t fail. And even if they do, their innate tenacity helps them plow through their failures until they achieve success.

Balcazar's life hasn't always been easy, but she nonetheless acknowledges that each step of the journey, no matter how tough, has added to the richness of her story. The ending of her first marriage, although difficult, blessed her with three beautiful children who are her pride and joy. Cecilia, her oldest daughter, graduated from Arizona Western College with three art degrees and now thrives in a career she adores. Her youngest daughter, Karina, graduated from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor's and a master's degree and is a principal at the Yuma Adventist Christian School. Her son, Victor, the oldest of her three children, hasn't decided what he wants to do with his life, but he's a good son with a bright mind and a solid character who Balcazar is confident will eventually find his calling in life.

Challenging past relationships can often lead to fulfilling ones. That is definitely the case with Balcazar and her current husband, Armando Balcazar, whom she married in 2016. They are committed to each other and their blended and extended family. They look forward to getting the whole family together for gatherings to nurture their bonds to each other, plus prepare the traditional Mexican dishes they love. For Balcazar, these moments are more than just about food—they’re a cherished ritual for handing down a legacy of her Mexican culinary heritage to the next generation.

What few people know about Balcazar is she harbors a streak of adventure; she has not once but twice jumped out of a moving plane strapped to the chest of an Army parachutist known as a Golden Knight. The U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team is a team of elite parachute professionals that showcase the professionalism, excellence, and teamwork found in the Army. They are an essential part of the Army's public engagement and outreach efforts. Each year, they put on aerial displays nationwide that feature high-precision aerial maneuvers that captivate audiences old and young.

The Golden Knights used to call YPG their winter training home due to its favorable weather conditions. Year after year, they returned to YPG to do precision parachuting and skydiving training. YPG’s clear, sunny days and minimal wind and rain made it the ideal training location.

During their training, the Golden Knights’ tandem team would request volunteers to perform tandem jumps with them. Tandem jumps are skydives in which a thrill-seeker is harnessed to an experienced jumper, in this case, a highly trained and seasoned Golden Knight.

In February 2003, Balcazar was at a turning point in her life—her divorce from her first husband was finalized, and she was about to turn 40. She felt it was the time to take a giant leap of faith, overcome her fears, and shake loose whatever held her back from living her life to the fullest. For her, tandem jumping was not just an incredible accomplishment—it was a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience she couldn't wait to do it again.

Balcazar is the first to admit that she underwent a profound transformation and is no longer the same young girl from Mexico who couldn’t speak English. Nor is she still the quiet, shy, and timid young woman who once felt she didn't belong. Balcazar is now a fearless and fierce champion for others who isn’t afraid to make her voice heard. More importantly, she believes in the significance of her words and actions, and, equally, in her own intrinsic value.

Thanks to amazing mentors and inspirational leaders such as Szymanski and Silva, Balcazar became the confident, assertive, highly capable, and competent person she is today. With their unwavering guidance and support, the Patito Feo, or ugly duckling, emerged from its shell as the beautiful swan it was always meant to be.