The 452nd Force Support Squadron’s Airman and Family Readiness Center here capped off Women’s History Month by hosting a base luncheon at the Hap Arnold Club, March 29, 2017. There was a record number of 71 attendees to celebrate challenges overcome and contributions made by military women past and present.
One of those former military members, and the Air Force’s first chief flight engineer, retired Chief Master Sgt. Jacki Caron-Mortenson, spoke to the group about challenges throughout her life and career.
She enlisted the day before her high school graduation. Subsequently awarded a full art scholarship on the day of her graduation, she declined and began her military service, eventually training to be an aircraft electrician on the C-141 Starlifter.
“That was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Caron-Mortenson said. “I worked with all men, but there were some advantages. My wrists were small enough to fit into the axel, and my waist was small enough for me to be able to go into the fuel cell.”
She eventually applied for a flying position and was accepted into the flight engineer program. She said it was a challenge but that she loves challenges, and that being a Girl Scout and having two brothers helped prepare her to succeed in upcoming training scenarios.
“(In prisoner-of-war camp training) I was the only girl with 70 guys, and they called me Wanda Wilderness,” she said. They made it as realistic as possible. I knew that if we ever went down I would be prepared for it.”
Caron-Mortenson said that over the years she has never looked at gender as a limiting factor. She encourages women to “just do your job and don’t worry about your gender.”
In1999 she had the chance to escort some celebrities to the Women in Military Service for America memorial ground-breaking ceremony. She said a reporter asked her why she thought women should get their own memorial.
She told the reporter that military women who served during WWII and the Vietnam era never received the recognition they deserved for their service.
“They didn’t get that (recognition) like we do today. I had my road paved by those former flyers, some of whom were in attendance, in their 70s, and still slim enough to wear their flight suits!”
Following her, the next speaker was Master Sgt. Dawn Perez, 452nd Maintenance Squadron career advisor and a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, who spoke about today’s military women and their futures. She said that women who proceeded her didn’t have the same luxury or opportunity to discuss options with a recruiter like she did.
“They fought for the privilege to serve our county (and) paved the way so that I could join,” she said. “Women are now celebrated and recognized for our contributions, none of which would have been possible if it had not been for those pioneering women who served before me (with) their tenacity to prove to others that they were worthy and up for the challenge. We have a voice now and it is heard.”
Perez informed guests that today’s military is 14.6 percent female, with the Air Force supporting 19.1 percent female Airmen. She also said there are nearly two million female veterans today.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my country and am eager to see what those who follow will become,” Perez said. “In the words of Amelia Earhart, a true pioneer and trailblazer, ‘Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And if they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others. The most effective way to do it is to do it,’” she said.
Perez concluded by encouraging women to lead the way, continue to pave the path and set the example.
“Strive for success. We are pioneers, leaders, innovators, creators, initiators,” she said. “We are women!”