COMMENTARY: Being an airman and a woman
GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE - I love writing commentaries. It gives me the chance to tell a story in a very informal way. But, for the first time, I don't know if even a commentary will do justice. I don't know if there's any way to tell this stor...
GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE - I love writing commentaries. It gives me the chance to tell a story in a very informal way. But, for the first time, I don't know if even a commentary will do justice. I don't know if there's any way to tell this story - to make you feel as if you were there with me.
I was going to go into a long, drawn-out background of how I got the opportunity to go the Air Force Women's Training Symposium. I don't think you care, and it's really irrelevant. What's important is that it wasn't a symposium for women - it was about women.
After spending a good portion of my Air Force career as a utilities systems craftsman, i.e. plumber, I often forget I am a woman, especially in uniform. Sure, I'm a female, and in some crowds, a chick, girl - or even worse. So, it was refreshing to walk into a room of 600 plus attendees, look around and see women. Not just females, girls, chicks ... Now, don't get me wrong - this wasn't some type of women's lib, bra-burning function.
The first day focused on the Air Force 60th anniversary message, Heritage to Horizons. We heard from a heritage panel, women who served from the 1940s to the 1960s. That panel included Col. Regina Aune, Chief Master Sgt. Dottie Holmes, who was the first woman to retire with 30 years service in the Air Force; and Margaret Ringenberg, a Women's Airforce Service Pilot.
This panel taught me a lot, not just about women's heritage, but about Air Force heritage. Aune told her story about Operation Baby Lift, an operation to evacuate several small children from Vietnam. Her plane crashed. She survived, but 11 crew members didn't. She was hesitant to tell her story; something I noticed about many of the panel members throughout the three-day seminar. While telling the story about how brave everyone was, about the teamwork, about how young everyone was (she was a second lieutenant at the time, most of the crew were young airmen), I noticed that she was very careful to point out that everyone, not just her, suffered, endured and overcame that tragedy. It was inspiring, to say the least.
You'll probably read that word a number of times during this ... inspiring. I got the chance to have a conversation with Chief Holmes. As I stood there and talked with her, I felt overwhelmed and nervous, like a little kid meeting Santa Claus at the mall for the first time. All I could say was, "Thank you for everything." She understood.
Lt. Gen. Terry Gabraski, the vice commander of Air Material Command, also spoke to the group. She reiterated that the stories we've heard and will hear are those of great airmen who happen to be women. They provided shoulders to climb on, not to cry on. She also mentioned one of our own during her remarks; Lt. Col. Kelly Goggin, 319th Operations Support Squadron commander. General Gabraski told the crowd of Goggin's recent command of the largest tanker squadron in the history of Air Mobility Command; 33 aircraft and 75 crews.
That same day, we heard from a panel of women in the Air Force from the 1970s to present day, and over the three days, we heard women and men speak about leadership, women in combat, pregnancy and post-traumatic stress disorder; we heard scholars, professors, doctors and executives, not to mention Navy, Army, Guard and Reserves.
There was a lot of talk about mentorship - being a mentor and finding a mentor. Granted, most of us have heard this term during our careers, but I had never heard it do this degree. The message of mentorship was interwoven with leadership. There were many messages of how to build our future leaders, men or women, into strong, courageous airmen.
Thursday, attendees had a choice of one of two break-out sessions, Pregnancy and Its Effect on Air Force Career (panel) or Medical Advances on the Battlefield and How Women are Contributing. Although I have no desire to be pregnant, I thought it was important as a supervisor to understand how being pregnant, and thus, having children, affects someone's career, deployment mentality, etc ... I learned a lot during that 45-minute block. I learned about the breast feeding policy, which I didn't even know existed, and I found out that the Air Force is the only branch without an official policy for how long one waits to deploy after giving birth (the panel members are trying to rectify that).
The last day of the symposium featured two civilian speakers, Gail Evans, an author and former vice president of CNN, and Dan Clark, a contributing author to the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. We also heard from Chiefs from across the services. Again, I was inspired.
All had the same message, no matter the branch. That message was pride, passion and professionalism - the three things that should motivate you to be a better airman, soldier, seaman, Marine or Coast Guardsman.
During that panel, a question was brought up about women in combat. How do you define direct combat in this Global War on Terror? Should someone have asked Tech. Sgt. Kathy Shaw, who spoke to the audience during the women in combat panel? She was the first female in the Air Force to lead a tactical combat convoy, and eventually was awarded the Bronze Star for her actions while under hostile fire. What is a combatant? Who is the enemy? These are all questions that arose during the symposium, and with unclear answers, the conclusion was drawn that we're all, no matter the branch or sex, on the "front lines."
"Bullets and rockets are indiscriminate," said Army Command Sergeant Major Cynthia Pritchett. I think I'll always remember that sentence. It hit home. I was inspired.
It wasn't all bullets, rockets and grenades on that last day. Evans spoke a little about a phrase we've heard a lot lately - "work/life balance." She made a great point, "You only have one life, and it includes work and a personal life." She went on to add that stressing over how to "balance" two lives makes life more complicated. That made a lot of sense to me.
Clark had similar messages to every speaker. He spoke about leadership and motivation. "Crisis does not make the man, but reveals the true character within," he said. And, yet again, I was inspired.
There was so much more conversation, both in passing in the hallways and from speakers and panel members, that I simply don't have time or space to write about. There was so much more to the three days than words exchanging; there was a feeling in the air. I left Friday wanting to be a better airman, a better supervisor and even a better wife.
I only wish that I had the ability to inspire everyone who reads this the way that I was moved during those three days. I thought I got it before, coming from Grand Forks Air Force Base, where women have made an impact all over base, from the base commander, group commanders, the staff judge advocate, squadron commanders, chiefs, senior NCOs ... the list goes on. I didn't know how deep it went, though. I didn't know just how many mentors are out there, or why I should view them as such. And, again, I am inspired.