More than words: Lt shares passion for sign language

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
Verbal communication is vital in today's military, but one 23d Force Support Squadron lieutenant can carry on a conversation without saying a word.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Mika Hamm's first language was Tagalog, followed by English and then four years of Japanese study. Her true passion, however, is American Sign Language.

"I love ASL, because it gives me a way to communicate through sign language, facial expressions, gestures and body language rather than just using my voice," Hamm said. "Being able to communicate with deaf people alone is rewarding. Occasionally, I get to meet strangers who are willing to share their language with me -- and it brings joy to my heart that I have a way to communicate with them ..."

During her commissioning, Hamm experienced firsthand some of the challenges of the deaf community when she invited her deaf friend to attend the ceremony. Citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, she informed her detachment that equal access to communication is a requirement. According to the law, if a deaf person wants to attend an event, accommodations such as a sign language interpreter, closed captions (for digital materials), or written script should be provided.

"Two months before the event, I told the program coordinator I needed a sign language interpreter," she said. "I did the research for him [and] gave him all of the phone numbers. I kept reminding him week after week. I kind of expected it wasn't going to happen, but I was hoping it would."

On commissioning day, there was no interpreter.

"My deaf friend should be able to come and be able to hear what you're able to hear ... [but] in her life she's really used to that -- to not getting her way."

A year later, the roles were reversed. Remembering her friend's disappointment, Hamm volunteered to interpret for a ceremony while in training at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Although not a licensed or certified interpreter, she was able to relay the commander's kind words about a deaf civilian employee who had been working with the military for 30 years.

Hamm's interest in the deaf community stems from her childhood church community in Kapaa, Hawaii. Hamm moved to Hawaii from the Philippines after she and her sister were adopted by their paternal uncle. At church, a member of the congregation would interpret sermons into sign language and teach the youth group how to sign the worship hymns.

Years later, Hamm now wants to serve as an inspiration and is considering offering a basic sign language course to Moody military families through the Airman and Family Readiness Center. Windy Scott, 23d FSS Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator, offers books and pamphlets to parents interested in teaching sign language to their children and has hopes of helping Hamm establish a basic course for parents.

"When it comes to communicating with those who are nonverbal or on the autism spectrum ... it gives them another way of communicating their needs," she said. "A lot of new mothers [on base] will teach the basics of sign language. One parent taught her child at 6 months."

Sign language is a valuable skill and resource beneficial to military members who may have children with special needs, according to Scott, so Hamm's ASL skills can be a vital resource for EFMP families.

"We can use our own resources to help each other," said Scott. "We are a community supporting each other."

With lifelong goals of becoming a teacher, learning played a key role in Hamm's early adult life. Beyond high school, she has another eight years of formal education. She began her educational journey by earning an associate degree in theology at Calvary Bible College in Murrieta, Calif. She has a double major in American Sign Language and early education and her Bachelor of Science is in kinesiology, which she earned at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is currently pursuing her master's in education from Liberty University.

Hamm's desire to learn is rooted in her faith and she shares her experiences with people from all walks of life. Following Bible college, she moved to Dallas where she worked with the International Prison Ministry in an all-male state prison.

"We got to go into the prison, pass out books and pray with people," she said. "I got to lead worship there one time. Our whole purpose of going in there was just to share the gospel and try to give them hope."

She describes the experience as "sobering," noting one of her pastors helped Charles "Tex" Watson, a former member of the Charles Manson family, find his faith.

Soon after working with the ministry, Hamm decided she wanted to give back to the country that had provided so many educational opportunities and life experiences. Born in West Berlin to an American military father and Filipino mother, Hamm became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and set her sights on becoming an Air Force officer.

"I was 27 years old when I joined ROTC," she said. "I wanted to give back to my country, because if I had lived in the Philippines, I would not have the kind of opportunities that I have today, here. I wouldn't have had the chance to go to college. I wanted to have an opportunity to go to college, so the Air Force was a way to pay for that."

Hamm pins on first lieutenant in May and recently moved from the 23d FSS resource management office to the readiness section. For now, she hasn't decided whether or not she will make the Air Force a career.

"If I do separate in the future, that desire to work with deaf children is definitely still there. If I end up deciding the Air Force is not going to be a career, I will go back and work with the education system."