JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
Nearly 70 members of the Women in the Air Force program gathered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland for a reunion Oct. 7, with many reminiscing on service careers that began nearly 70 years ago.
Founded in 1948 as part of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, WAF served as a trailblazing initiative for female service members, providing networking opportunities and career advancement strategies during the first three decades of the Air Force’s existence.
The organization advocated for expanded roles for women in the Air Force until 1976, when women were accepted on equal footing with men.
WAF members made stops across JBSA-Lackland during their reunion visit, to include a visit to a basic military training graduation ceremony presided over – and completely staffed by – female Airmen. The group made stops at the Pfingston Reception Center, the Airman Training Complex, the Airman Heritage Museum and downtown San Antonio.
The reunion served as a chance for many pioneering women to look back on their roles during several pivotal periods in Air Force history, said Col. Gretchen Wiltse, 433rd Maintenance Group commander.
“Our WAFs are huge trailblazers, so it’s just an honor to be in their presence,” Wiltse said. “They committed to career fields that had never seen women before. They were willing to challenge current norms, bust rules, and take on roles that women had never taken on before.”
Through 1976, women’s participation in the military was limited in both scope and size, though WAFs helped gradually expand those types of roles, Wiltse noted.
“When many of these women started serving, they weren’t fully recognized equal members of the military, but they made tremendous progress towards receiving equal benefits and protections,” Wiltse noted. “Looking back from present day, we’ve made great strides in the last 30 years.”
Wiltse served as the keynote speaker at the tour’s marquee event, a living history fashion show that featured 22 Airmen clad in historically-accurate uniforms from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Staff Sergeants Shalonda Mack, 502nd Communications Squadron client systems technician, and Jennifer Dowling, 502nd Force Support Squadron Airmen Leadership School instructor, were two of the 22 historical re-enactors modeling uniforms from different Air Force eras.
Mack, dressed in a 1980s mess dress – complete with a white ruffled shirt, sharp navy jacket and matching insignia, served as the most modern of the re-enactors.
Mack was thrilled to walk in the shoes –literally – of the service members that came decades before her, she said.
“Walking in a uniform those women wore back in the day is an honor,” Mack explained. “This event really opens up the eyes of younger women that really don’t know that much about the WAF organization or what they accomplished. We have so many more job opportunities and we get to serve with our male counterparts equally because of what they did.”
Dowling was clad in a transitional uniform Air Force used from 1948-1950. The uniform bore both Army and Air Force patches, demonstrating the shift of women serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps into the Air Force in the late 1940s.
For Dowling, whose mother-in-law served as a WAF in 1952, performing as a re-enactor was a surreal experience.
“I feel honored to be part of this show,” Dowling said. “This is our history, our culture, and it’s important that we don’t forget about the sacrifices people have made throughout the years that got us where we are now.”
Retired 1st Lt. Mary Hall, a WAF who now works with the Airman Heritage Museum at JBSA-Lackland, recalls making a few sacrifices in her day.
Hall, who served as a WAF from 1951 to 1956, during the Korean War, was just two weeks short of becoming a captain when she had to leave the Air Force due to a pregnancy, which was the Air Force policy for that time.
The Air Force has become much more inclusive of women since her service in the 1950s, and added that she was happy to be a part of the reunion, Hall said.
“This is wonderful – I’m so proud to see all these women here,” Hall said. “I’m glad that they’re getting their fair share of appreciation, because WAF members can be overlooked sometimes.”
If not for the thousands of WAFs who served decades ago, Airmen like herself wouldn’t have a chance to take up leadership positions in the Air Force, Wiltse added.
“Thanks to these women, the rest of us can now be general officers and chief master sergeants,” she explained. “Nearly twenty percent of our mechanics at the 433rd Maintenance Group today are women.”
While the WAF reunion was a way to honor the history of thousands of female Airmen, Wiltse said the event also signaled the start of a new era for all future women looking to serve.
“(When) I started serving, we had the first female fighter pilot,” Wiltse noted. “Now, we’ve got women in combat roles all over the world. None of these things would have been done if not for the pioneers who came before us.