Publisher: Norm Brozenick
Editor: Paul Harmon
Managing Editor: Rick Newton
Senior Editor: Scott McIntosh
Contributing Editor: Ron Dains
Contributing Editor: Matt Durham
Contributing Editor: Joel Higley
Contributing Editor: Mike Russell
Layout Editor/Graphics: Jeanette Elliott
Advertising: Melissa Gross
In 1993 Congress repealed the ban on women serving in combat aircraft. Shortly thereafter Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) led the way integrating women into all fixed wing aircrew positions. Yet, nearly a quarter of a century later, the story of AFSOC’s female Air Commandos has never been told in a cohesive, comprehensive manner that captures our vast combat experience, leadership, and significant impact on Air Commando history. This volume is an opportunity for the women of AFSOC to share a glimpse into the lives of your wives, mothers, friends, and neighbors who are proud to call themselves Air Commandos past and present.
Twenty-plus years ago when I heard the news that AFSOC was hiring, I was a junior captain at the decision point of whether or not to stay in the Air Force when my active duty service commitment expired. I thought, “This sounds like my dream job.” I made a phone call to the squadron commander of the 16th Special Operations Squadron, then Lt Col Brad Heithold , who told me, “Brenda, we’re happy to hire you into Spectre gunships, but if you want an assignment quickly give the 4th SOS a call. They’re a new airframe and trying to fill a lot of crew positions.” On his advice, I called the 4th Special Operations Squadron and spoke with Lt Col Eric Fiel who asked when I could start. Soon thereafter my orders arrived, and I checked into the 19th Special Operations Squadron for AC-130U Spooky Gunship training in September 1997.
I don’t remember exactly how many female aircrew there were when I arrived at Hurlburt Field in the late ‘90s, but I do recall there were fewer than a dozen or so that I knew of across all AFSOC aircraft. One of those was the first female AFSOC pilot, 2Lt Shelley Ripple (now Col Shelley Rodriguez). Col Rodriguez is an MC-130P/J Shadow pilot who has gone on to have a distinguished career. She recently led Air Commandos as the Operations Group Commander at the 58th Special Operations Wing. Currently she is serving at AFSOC Headquarters developing the future of AFSOC weapons systems, making Air Commandos more ready and lethal.
A couple years after my arrival I was joined in gunships by Lieutenants Tracy Onufer and Meghan English (now Col Tracy Onufer and Lt Col Meghan Ripple), both Air Commandos who share their stories in these pages. There were many more to come, both officer and enlisted, serving as aircrew, maintainers, and combat support, Air Commandos including Allison Black, Heather Bueter, Kristina Montgomery, Rachel Halvorson, Kate Hewlett, Jackie Powell, and Anna Garcia-Lucas. I am grateful to these women for sharing their stories in this edition and personifying hundreds of female Air Commandos past, present, and future.
Nevertheless, in spite of two-plus decades of women serving as Air Commandos, I still run into people who don’t realize or believe women serve in special operations. There are those who, despite our successes—including being awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses, hundreds of Air Medals, and dozens of Air Force Combat Action Medals— still doubt that when faced with the immense challenges of combat we can overcome obstacles and emerge successfully alongside our brothers in arms.
The truth is today we have women serving with distinction in all crew positions and combat support roles. The Air Commandos in these pages represent some of our nation’s top talent, contributing diversity of thought, perspectives, and skills to AFSOC. We have fought in every combat contingency since Operation ALLIED FORCE (1999). We are patriots who have a deep desire to serve our nation, defend our Constitution and support our allies at all costs. Some have paid the ultimate sacrifice, including women such as SSgt Anissa Shero.
We’ve turned to each other along the way, both deployed and at home, forming bonds of friendship and family. We’ve also enjoyed tremendous support from many of our male counterparts and leadership who have trained with us, deployed in combat with us, and developed us into AFSOC leaders. Across our joint SOF world, many of us have a story of being ‘by name requested’ by a SEAL or Special Forces team going to the ‘X’ to be the crewmembers of choice on particularly tough missions.
While these pages highlight our history and our Air Commando experience today, this edition is also a call to the future. The next generation of girls and boys who want to be Air Commandos is out there. We want them to know the hangar doors are wide open for them to join the proud women and men of Air Force Special Operations Command.
My thanks to the Air Commando Association for the opportunity to be a part of this edition, and a very special thanks to Col (Ret) Dennis Barnett for giving me the great honor of penning this Foreword and ensuring that we capture the rich history of all Air Commandos, anywhere, anytime, any place.