HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --
The Air Commando Association hosted an Air Force Special Operations Command women’s panel during a heritage symposium Dec. 7 at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
The panel, comprised of top female leaders within AFSOC, focused on women in the fight.
“I came into the Air Force in 1992 and around 1993, Congress repealed the ban on women in combat aircraft,” said Col. Brenda Cartier, AFSOC director of operations. “They weren’t allowed in ground combat, but they could fly in combat aircraft. That policy changed as I was going through the Airborne Warning and Control System pipeline and I found out about it after I had gone to the school. I did the best I could in AWACS, eventually becoming an instructor and evaluator.”
As Cartier faced a decision point in her career, a friend reached out to her about the gunship community.
“A friend said, ‘Hey Brenda, gunships are hiring,’” said Cartier. “He shared information with me, gave me the contacts, and I was really interested in being in combat aircraft and in that excitement. I’m an A-type personality, and I wanted to do something that I knew was going to really challenge me, every single day. I did it, I never looked back and it was the best decision I ever made.”
Cartier served AFSOC for more than two decades as an aviator and leader, ultimately commanding the 4th Special Operations Squadron, 1st Expeditionary Special Operations Group in Afghanistan and the 58th Special Operations Wing. Additionally, with an upcoming promotion to the rank of brigadier general, Cartier will be AFSOC’s first female air commando general officer.
Other leaders spoke about their roles in AFSOC aviation. Chief Master Sgt. Rebecca Shelley, AFSOC A4 (logistics, engineering and force protection directorate) weapon systems superintendent, spoke about the increase in the number of women in maintenance over the years.
“Maintenance has more females now than it ever has,” said Shelley. “There were just a few of us in the ‘90s. I did all of the things I could to excel, get promoted and deploy. I loved being in AFSOC and I was loyal to AFSOC and loyal to my brothers. I loved working with operations as well; I had great mentors on the ops side, both when I was young and when I was older and I learned from them.”
The experiences of Cartier and Shelley, along with many others, impacted future generations of women in the Air Force.
“I had the opportunity to follow the path of trailblazers such as Col. Cartier and Chief Master Sgt. Shelley,” said Maj. Caitlin Riley, AFSOC director of operations executive officer. “They did all of the hard work. I came in and gender was just transparent. Going through pilot training, even in Air Mobility Command, and AFSOC, you were either a good pilot or you weren’t. That’s what it came down to. It’s all about competence.”
Lt. Col. Kristen Wood, 1st Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron commander, spoke on a similar note about her experiences.
“If you showed yourself as competent, that’s all they were looking for,” said Wood. “I felt that competence always outshone being a female in a male-dominated organization, which was great. As long as you knew your job, as long as you could lead your peers, lead your Airmen and lead up, then you were good.”
As the number of women serving in the Air Force grows, careers previously open only to men are now open to women.
“I really appreciated when the DOD came down and told the services, ‘No, don’t tell me how you can’t do this, tell me why you can’t do this,’” said Wood. “They’ve opened up those Air Force Specialty Codes, so individually, females could now show their competence. Individually, they could meet those standards and join those AFSCs. Institutionally, we’re on the right path, where we’re not changing those standards, but we’re opening up those AFSCs to go out there and show your individual competence.”