WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s only female four-star general used examples from her three-decade-plus career to show the tremendous progress of women in the military, during a gala dinner celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, Air Force Materiel Command commander, was the keynote speaker for the dinner celebrating the more than two million women who have served in the military.
Wolfenbarger was among the first group of women to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy, in 1980 and told the audience of former and current military women that there was a great fear in the beginning, that standards would somehow be lowered by allowing women to attend the service academies.
“So I, along with my female classmates, spent four years proving that the standards, in fact, would not have to be lowered and that women could not only survive, but actually thrive in that very challenging environment,” said Wolfenbarger.
In June of 1976, Wolfenbarger and 156 women entered the Air Force Academy as the first female cadets in its history. She remembers that first day as a sobering introduction into how the next four years would unfold. “I remember chit-chatting with another female, when an upper classman stopped us and physically threw us against the wall. He got within inches of our faces and yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing talking in my hallway?’ It’s safe to say that during the whole first summer I was in a state of shock.”
Wolfenbarger said that people are often curious about the number of women who enrolled versus those who ultimately graduated from that first class. She said that out of more than 150, only 97 would go on to graduate, about 10 percent of the class. “Women had the same attrition rate as was traditional with all-male classes.”
Sometimes asked whether she would go through it all again, Wolfenbarger answers with a resounding yes. “It took me a while after graduation to crystallize in my mind the value of the Academy experience. The Academy really stretched me mentally, emotionally and physically and I came out the other side realizing that I was far more capable than I ever thought I was. That knowledge brought with it a self confidence that I have relied on throughout my military career, as well as in my personal life.”
But as much as a trailblazer as she’s been, Wolfenbarger has wanted to be recognized, not for her accomplishments as a woman, but for simply working hard and accomplishing the mission.
“I served in the acquisition business for most of my 30 plus years. I’ve had the good fortune to work on the leading edge fighter, bomber and transport aircraft programs in the Air Force. I worked on the F/A-22 for eight-plus years, the B-2 bomber for five-plus years, including time as director of the program. I was also director of the C-17 program for two and a half years. I spent time at the Pentagon as the first female and first non-fighter pilot lead F-22 program element monitor for three years.”
She went on to tell the audience of more than 300, about assignments that took her to the top levels of Air Force acquisition, both at the Pentagon and later at the Air Force Materiel Command where she served as the vice commander for close to two years, before taking the role in the Pentagon as the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
Wolfenbarger said that while women have doubled their ranks in the Air Force, there’s still room for improvement.
“The beautiful ‘Women in Military Service for America Memorial’ has, for the last 15 years, served as a symbol of national gratitude on behalf of each of us, the more than 2 million female veterans, active duty, Guard and Reserve for our military service.”