Air Force Lt. Col. Manuela Peters is singing and acting her way across the world.
Peters’ love for the arts is a common thread throughout her life – whether performing for Spokane Civic Theater while stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the U.S. Embassy Belgrade’s Fourth of July ceremony.
A self-proclaimed “Air Force brat,” Peters, 39, is following in the footsteps of her father, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who spent 26 years conducting military bands.
However, Peters’ career went in a different direction. Peters is a highly decorated senior pilot who has logged more than 3,000 flight hours, a third of those in combat. She speaks five languages and, prior to her current posting in Serbia, she served as the assistant air attaché in Hungary.
Based at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Peters is one of the primary liaisons between the U.S. and Serbian militaries. As air attaché, she represents the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Air Force, and Commanders of U.S. European Command and U.S. Air Forces in Europe to the Serbian Ministry of Defense.
“It’s always a large responsibility to represent your country and to try to represent it in the most authentic way that you can,” she said.
Peters likens her role to being the diplomatic arm of the military, informing policymakers back in the U.S. about Serbian political and military issues so they can formulate national security strategies.
Building a good relationship between the two countries is at the forefront of the job. Among her duties are participating in joint training opportunities and interacting with Serbian Armed Forces.
Peters said being immersed in a foreign culture is something she has always enjoyed.
As a child, Peters and her family spent a fair amount of time traveling around Europe. So, when it came time for Peters to start at the Air Force Academy, she said it just made sense to major in foreign area studies.
Typically, people do not get selected for the foreign area officer program until they are at least seven years into their career. Those interested are expected to meet strict requirements including regional immersion time and earning a master’s in international relations.
Peters was able to fast -track the process and begin her first assignment sooner than usual. Jessica Chronister, former Air Force acquisitions and intelligence officer and a friend of Peters’, said she admires Peters’ ability to pick up new languages, a vital skill in this line of work.
When Chronister lived in Hungary, she struggled to learn Hungarian – something Peters had no problem doing.
“She’s brilliant,” Chronister said. “Manu was able to become fluent in Hungarian. She’s fluent in French, she speaks Italian now, she speaks Serbo-Croatian … she’s definitely gifted with languages.”
In addition to learning new cultures and languages, Peters said traveling helps her appreciate not only where she came from, but better understand the U.S.’s role and influence in the world.
“I think (traveling) opens your mind to what the possibilities are that things can be done in different manners and still can be wonderful,” she said. “It also just adds a unique flavor to life.”
Peters was born at Providence Holy Family in Spokane, spending the first 10 months of her life in town. Her father then joined the Air Force and the family began moving around the world. In 2006, while in her early 20s, Peters returned to Spokane.
Between performing at the Civic Theater and getting ice cream at The Scoop, Peters said the five years she lived in Spokane was foundational. Peters’ husband, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Robert Peters, joined her full time in 2009.
The two met at the United States Air Force Academy in January 2003 and spent the early years of their marriage commuting between Spokane, where Peters was based, and Bremerton, where he was based. They have three children, ages 12, 10 and 7.
The couple buy their first home in Spokane, a 1941 Cape Cod on the South Hill, where their first two children were born. Peters said they were dedicated at the same church she was, St. Augustine Catholic Church.
Peters’ husband was also heavily involved in the community. He was the assistant wrestling coach at Mead High School, and after completing a teaching program at Whitworth University, he student-taught at Mead as well.
“It was a very important time for us as a couple and our marriage … for us in our careers as we were getting established as early officers, for us as a family as we started growing beyond the two of us,” Peters said.
Peters is one of six kids. Peters said she makes a point to visit home and also make regular FaceTime calls, ensuring her children have strong relationships with their loved ones back in the U.S., Peters said.
Her parents and sister live in Virginia. While living so far away from his daughter and grandkids is difficult, Peters’ father, Dennis Layendecker, said he is proud of all his daughter has accomplished.
Layendecker said he did not anticipate Peter’s decision to join the Air Force. When it came time for Peters to decide her steps after high school, Layendecker’s daughter surprised him. He said he expected her to attend Notre Dame.
However, he said her decision to enlist was one of the best things that ever happened to the family, and Peters’ brother joined her in the Air Force four years later.
Layendecker said Peters has a special ability of connecting with people. Her drive and “spunkiness” are both traits her father attributes to Peters’ success.
“Our buttons have burst so many times I may have to sew ’em back on,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like Manuela … and that’s just kind of been since childbirth. She just kind of gets along with everybody and has a positive attitude that I think is very helpful, particularly as a leader, as an officer.”
And even though she now lives more than 5,500 miles away from Spokane, the place her career took off, Peters said the Lilac City will always hold a special place in her heart. In fact, it is high on her and her husband’s retirement list.
Wherever Peters and her husband land in the future, she said they will forever be grateful for the community and support they found in Spokane.
“The Air Force is a reflection of the people of the United States and that includes the people in Spokane, and so I’m proud to be a representative of Spokane,” she said. “I’m going to claim it. You know, a representative of Spokane in the Air Force but also around the world, and hopefully I do it proud.”
Abby Davis is a 2022 graduate of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. She reported this story while participating in the Murrow College’s Backpack Journalism program in Serbia in March 2022.