War Stories: Staff Sgt. Dorothy Planas

U.S. Air Force, 1973-1981 — Telecommunication Specialist
I was in telecommunications in the Air Force. My first two assignments were working in the base telecommunications center at Kirkland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, N.M., and Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
My last assignment was as an Air Force telephone operator in the basement of the Pentagon. Then they moved me up to the second floor, where I was a secure voice operator in the National Military Command Center.

I joined on Jan. 26, 1973. And of course, Basic Training was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, so it was just across town. I think I went home for one visit while I was in there. And then from Lackland, I went to Shepherd Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, for tech school for Telecommunications Center Specialist. I don’t even remember what all we did there. It was such a long time ago, anyway.

From there I went to Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque and there was assigned to the base communications center. We sent and received messages on the IBM cards. We also sent and received messages on a five-level paper tape. I learned when I got there that that was one of the fields that they had not had many women in. When I got there, I was only the second woman in that field, in that communications center. And during the time that I was there, then there were other women that came in also. They did have one woman in that job, and apparently they were still just starting to put women in career fields that previously had only been open to men. And then over the next couple of years, there were more women that started coming in. For me, it was totally a positive experience. I never really felt threatened. I felt like everybody — all the men that I worked with — treated me with a lot of respect. I never experienced any problems at all with any of them. And to me, that just means a lot, because that wasn’t the case for everybody.

I was there until 1975. Then they sent me to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, where I spent two years. And that was same thing — the base communications center. I got to see some of the other islands while I was there, and then in 1977, I got an assignment for the Pentagon. So, I went home for 30 days leave. I drove from my home in San Antonio to San Francisco when I went over to Hawaii, and then when I came back to the U.S., I first came home. I bought a car while I was home and then I drove from San Antonio up to Washington, D.C. I took a friend with me so I wouldn’t have to drive all by myself. Then she went back home.

Like I said, the first year, I was in the basement with the Air Force switchboard, and then they transferred me up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Command Center or the National Military Command Center, was what they called it.

While I was on duty, two things happened when I was there. I was on duty the day that President Reagan was shot, and I came on duty the morning after the failed hostage rescue attempt during the crisis with Iran. And, any time anything happened worldwide, things became very active in our area.

We had practice drills, simulating that a missile was coming in — through NORAD — where they had spotted a missile coming in, so we had to practice that. And one time we went up to Maryland, flew up on a helicopter and went up there and spent the week there training. I don’t remember what all we did up there. I think if I remember correctly, it was up in the mountains, it was all underground. But I don’t remember the name of the place.

The most tense times were when there was something going on, and we had to set up conferences. We had the ability of setting up secure and nonsecure conferences with all the command centers around the world. It was really interesting, sometimes it was really tense, and I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore.

I remember one … I have to tell this one.

It was 1979, in the winter, and it started snowing early in the day on Sunday. I was working the midnight shift. So, when I went in to work that night, I worked through the night — we were to get off the next morning when the next team would come in. But, it had snowed all day Sunday — all afternoon and all night. Well, it snowed so much that the other team couldn’t get in. We couldn’t leave. And so we had to work through the next day, and we worked three shifts. They have a cafeteria at the Pentagon, and they had vending machines. So, we ate whatever we could. And then I think it was Monday evening, they loaded us onto a truck, a troop truck, whatever you call it. They took us over to Fort Myer, Va., so we could have some supper and then we had to go back to the Pentagon and keep working through until Tuesday morning. By then the weather had let up and the snow was down enough so we could leave. The worst part was, just that it wasn’t so hard — the worst was not being able to brush my teeth!

Then, I was already planning to go back to school toward the end of that tour. They were going to send me to Incirlik, Turkey, but I had already made plans to go back to school. So, I just got out in August of 1981, and then from there I went to school. I went to Washington Bible College right outside Lanham, Md., and then went to graduate school at Texas Woman’s University for my master’s degree in library science.

That’s my story. It’s not very long, but, you know, that’s what I did.

Dorothy’s awards include the Joint Chiefs of Staff service badge, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Air Force Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Air Force Longevity Service Award, and the USAF NCO Professional Military Education graduate ribbon.

Editor’s Note: This veteran’s story has been transcribed from her own words during an in-person interview. Only minor edits have been made for clarity.

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