JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
Basic military training, or BMT, trainees are provided different skills that can help them throughout their military careers. Some skills come from materials found in textbooks. A few develop the ability to connect within a BMT flight. It was because of this connection that Susan Whaley and her band of sisters were able to reunite after 40 years.
About 40 women prepared to begin a life different from what they had known. They were alone as they boarded a bus that would take them to their new home, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, known as "The Gateway to the Air Force."
“We were all ushered on a bus and brought to Lackland,” Whaley said, 3707th Squadron, Flight W039 dorm chief of 1979. “We were given something to eat, told to go to sleep, and told we would wake up at 5 a.m.”
The women came from different places they called home. Home may have been a small town in the middle of nowhere or a large city. Although home was different for all the women, the same thought may have crossed their minds: "what have I done."
“It was terrifying when I arrived,” Whaley said. “What was I thinking?”
Whaley was a single mother and decided to leave her daughter behind with her parents to secure a job, income and benefits; a better life. Some expectations of women were to get married and have babies at that time. Not all of the women had the same idea.
“I grew up on a ranch in North East Texas as a tomboy-cowgirl,” Crystal McKnight-Mitchell said. “I knew the world was out there and not where I was living. The Air Force allowed me to explore different possibilities for my life.”
Whaley was selected as dorm chief of her flight with no idea what that meant. She would soon find out all that the title demanded. Responsibilities like directing her flight, learning commands, ensuring that all tasks were completed promptly, and accountability of her entire flight were just a few of the things she was required and expected to accomplish.
“I was not just in BMT,” Whaley said. “These women were under may care around the clock until we graduated.”
And just like that, the women of W039 became “my girls”.
The “I” in team
During that time, their male training instructor, Staff Sgt. Paul Panamarenko, couldn’t be in the dorm after 5 p.m. or on the weekends. The flight became very connected with one another with each lesson they experienced.
At first, it was chaos. Some lessons learned during their moments together involved disagreements. However, the flight was able to learn from their experiences and started working as a team. Despite their differences, the women of W039 became like a well-oiled machine.
“We all got along and truly wanted the best for each other,” Olivia Champ-Taylor said. “It was hard, very hard. Learning to work as one was difficult. But once we understood why, it became easier.”
Flight W039 began to function as one, relying on the other to get the job done.
“I learned to put my ego in my back pocket and think beyond the individual, namely myself,” McKnight-Mitchell said. She was able to grasp the concept that some Airmen still have trouble understanding. “I learned to think of the group, teamwork and the ‘we’ instead, of the ‘me’.”
Best of the best
Things did get easier. But it had nothing to do with them being females in a male-dominated force. For them, basic training was just as strict and tough as it was for the males. It was life changing. In 1979, flight W039 was the first female flight their male instructor had at that time. The year prior, single women who were mothers were allowed to join without being married. It was a time of change in the military.
“We had to prove we were as capable as the male flights,” McKnight-Mitchell said. “There was no preferential treatment, and we worked our butts off. Our instructor took a group of individuals and made them a cohesive unit of Airmen, the best – Honor Flight!”
Honor flight is not made up of one person. At the start of basic training, a flight consists of about 50 individuals going in 50 different directions. To be called Honor Flight, you must be the best of the best, individuals functioning as a unit.
Together, the women of W039 accomplished and proved much more than receiving the title of Honor Flight. They revealed to themselves that they were capable of much more.
“Basic training was an experience that I will never forget, nor regret,” Roxann McDade said. “I found out that I was a survivor, a winner and a responsible, strong, young woman. I discovered the me…”
Now, 40 years later, and the women W039 meet for the first time since they graduated. Out of the 44 Airmen of 1979, only 13 were able to return to the home they shared for six weeks. Since graduating from BMT, Whaley had the desire to stay in touch with her sisters.
“I tried,” Whaley said. “There were no personal computers or social media back in 1979. I started to lose touch with so many of them.”
Whaley sent Christmas cards at first. Unfortunately, her band of sisters traveled further apart into their military careers, finding them appeared a loss. In 2015, she was finally able to locate some of her Airmen with the help of social media.
Whaley connected with people who ended up being the sons, daughters, friends or even the grandkids of some of the women from the flight. In 2019, she was able to begin the preparation; their 40th reunion back to where it all began.
“Reconnecting after all these years is simply amazing,” Fannie McLean said. “Words cannot express how crazy it is. I assumed that we would never run into each other again after basic training,” she said.
Because of the determination of one dorm chief, the women of W039 were able to witness the next generation of American Airmen graduate and begin their own journey towards the unknown, standing proudly, never alone.
As the words of the Airmen’s creed echo across the parade field, Whaley, standing with her band of sisters, listened to words that didn’t even exist during her time of basic training and one that few understand.
Because she was a Wingman, leader and a warrior, her drive to never leave an Airman behind allowed 13 Airmen of 1979 to stand shoulder to shoulder once again. Unfortunately, not all the members of flight W039 were found. Some have even passed away.
“I think they’ll always be my girls,” Whaley said. “They were given to me as my girls. It wasn’t something I asked for, but something I got. And I’m very grateful for that.”
She will not falter.
“I’m still looking, and I’ll keep looking until I find them all,” she said.
And she will not fail.