AF intern: ‘I have never felt less disabled’

  • Published
  • By Michele Eaton
  • Air Force Equal Opportunity Office

Natalie Labayen may look fine on the outside, but inside, a battle wages.

A senior at George Washington University and intern with the Air Force, LaBayen was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2011, an ailment that some days leaves this 23-year old in severe pain.


Basically, an autoimmune disease develops when the immune system sees healthy body cells as foreign and attacks them. Depending on the type, the disease can affect the body in many ways.  


Daily pain is one of them. Emotional strain is another.  


Since being diagnosed, LaBayen said confidence is tough to feel some days, but she’s not at all shy about her ailment. Sharing, she said, actually helps her deal with it.


“As a disabled student, especially one who only recently (became) ill, confidence is sometimes hard to muster,” she said.  “You are frequently told how ‘inspiring’ you are while not being given opportunities to act on it.”


LaBayen said the Air Force did the exact opposite, giving her an outlet to showcase how a disabled person can be more than an inspiration to someone, but can be a productive member of a team.


She was so productive that earlier this year LaBayen was awarded the Department of Defense Judith C. Gilliom Award at the 2013 Workforce Recruitment Program awards ceremony for her work in the Air Force Diversity office at the Pentagon.


Her boss, Dr. Jarris L. Taylor, Jr., heads the service’s effort to improve diversity and further an environment of dignity, inclusion, and respect in the workplace.


With that charge, it seems Labayen landed in the right place.


“In giving me creative and organizational control over my own projects, Dr. Taylor allowed me to grow and to actually feel valuable and appreciated for the outcome I produced,” she said. “Thanks to my amazing mother, my career advisor at the George Washington University, and the [Workforce Recruitment Program] family, I was able to see myself as me again, and not as a ‘disability.’ In fact, I have never felt less disabled.”

The WRP is a recruitment and referral program that connects federal and private sector employers nationwide with disabled college students and recent graduates. Since the program's expansion in 1995, more than 6,000 students and recent graduates have received temporary and permanent employment opportunities.

 “(This program) is an opportunity to directly contribute to the nation’s efforts and our Air Force diversity priorities to institutionalize, attract, recruit, develop, and retain a highly qualified diverse and inclusive total force,” Taylor said. “My vision is that the Air Force becomes the preeminent employer of choice. By highlighting our various diversity and inclusion outreach programs and initiatives, such as the WRP, we must continue to communicate that diversity is a military necessity.”

For the 2014 WRP, interviews will be held this fall. Qualified students can obtain interviews by working with their college’s career advisors. For more information, candidates and hiring managers can visit or email questions to


Staff Sgt. David Salanitri and Joel Fortner of the Air Force Public Affairs Agency Operating Location –Pentagon contributed to this story.