CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Progress and history: the former represents the future and the latter looks to the past, but the two tend to be intertwined. The names that inspire the future belong to those who broke from convention, embraced new ways of thinking and inspired others to join them on the cutting edge.
To be trailblazers of such historical proportion is no small feat in Air Force Special Operations Command, but Lt. Col. Allison Hardwick, 3rd Special Operations Squadron commander, and Master Sgt. Gessica Lillich, 3 SOS operations superintendent, can claim such status.
Prior to taking her current position, Hardwick filled the 3 SOS director of operations position to pair with Lillich as the first all-female officer-enlisted AFSOC remotely piloted aircraft squadron operations leadership tandem.
A flying squadron’s day-to-day operations are largely managed by an officer as a director of operations and, when enlisted Airmen are directly involved in the squadron’s mission, an enlisted operations superintendent. Both positions are incredibly important and carry heavy responsibility, requiring those who fill them to be experts in their mission and exceptional in their leadership ability.
Many flyers consider it a career achievement to arrive at either position, and Hardwick and Lillich’s simultaneous tenure in the spots stands out even more given how male-dominated the military aviation community is. Their tenures in their respective positions are major landmarks in the long roads they both took to where they are today.
For Hardwick, the desire to obtain a commission in the Air Force and become a pilot goes hand-in-hand with her family’s history.
“I have great-grandfathers, a grandfather, uncles, cousins and my own father who served in the military,” Hardwick said. “It is kind of a family tradition.”
Her primary mentor never spent any time in the service however. Nevertheless, her example instilled in Hardwick the principles she has come to live out through her Air Force career.
“My mother is the smartest person I know and she showed it by pursuing multiple degrees in a time where women were expected to stay home as caregivers,” Hardwick said. “She always worked harder than everyone around her, persevered through gender discrimination, did the right thing no matter how hard it was and encouraged me to follow my dreams.”
Similarly, Lillich credits women as the inspiration for her calling, meeting the first as a green security forces defender.
“When I was an Airman 1st Class, Staff Sgt. (now Senior Master Sgt.) Kazue Martinez was the NCO that I wanted to be like,” Lillich said. “She always pushed me harder than I thought I could go and was always a hard charger.”
It was a drive Lillich would come to mirror as she came to pursue her desire to earn her wings as an enlisted aviator. It was during this time in her career where she fell under the tutelage of a teacher who would become her mentor in the RPA field.
“Chief Master Sgt. Kimberly Pollard was my instructor for initial qualification training as a sensor operator,” Lillich said. “At the time she was a Tech. Sgt. and was extremely impactful in my training.
“As our careers have progressed, she has been instrumental in her mentorship and guidance.”
Both aviators have taken after the example set by role models, stepping out of their conventional career tracks to explore largely uncharted territory. Lillich left the largest and oldest enlisted Air Force specialties for one of the smallest and newest; Hardwick traded her seat in the long-established C-130H Hercules airlift aircraft community for a spot in the fledgling RPA mission.
Then there are the obstacles which come with being a woman in the military.
“One of the main challenges that I have faced as a female is perception,” Lillich said. “When it comes to physical goals or undertaking, I have been told that I can’t or won’t complete them. But every physical challenge I’ve had, I’ve crushed.”
“When I came up against people’s biases, I just told myself to have the best attitude, have the best work ethic and crush every task any supervisor could delegate,” Hardwick said. “I really just drive myself to do the best job always and that means taking care of others as well.”
It is a warrior spirit they both share which paid off with both of them being handpicked by their senior leadership to take charge of operations at 3 SOS, and in Hardwick’s case, command of the squadron after her time as DO.
Both Hardwick and Lillich consider their tenure together as DO and OS to be one of the best experiences of their career, in part because of how their careers up to the point produced compatible leadership styles.
“Gessica and I clicked from the minute she came back from her deployment last year,” Hardwick said. “We both believe in ‘intrusive leadership,’ which means we will empower our people to do their jobs but we’re right there beside them for help, advice, and guidance.”
“The dynamic between us would be that of a doubles tennis match,” Lillich said. “No matter what is volleyed over the net, we are in step to return.”
Hardwick and Lillich’s success can seem daunting to replicate, but both insist that other women can achieve similar heights by being themselves and growing where they are planted.
“I watched many leaders throughout my career and always looked for the perfect one, but honestly, none exist,” said Hardwick. “As leaders, we succeed because we accept who we are, work tirelessly to improve on our weaknesses, and never forget to revel in our strengths.”
“Don’t shy away from being female,” Lillich said. “This is something that at times I didn’t want to be highlighted or a distinguishing factor. In most cases it is not, but there are still a lot of firsts to be had by women in the military and there isn’t anything wrong about embracing it.”
“Lastly, leading doesn’t start with a rank or position, you can lead from anywhere. It starts with your heart.”