The 162nd Wing mourned the loss of an icon, Sunday, as one of its most influential unit members was laid to rest. Retired Chief Master Sgt. Karen Veltman dedicated 32 years of her life to the 162nd, its members and their families. She stands as a pillar of feminist fortitude to the masses of women she has paved the way for throughout the Air National Guard and the nation.
Veltman enlisted in the 162nd on Valentine’s Day, 1973, along with one other woman. They were the first women to join the ranks of the Tucson Air Guard following the passage of Public Law 90-130 in 1968, which allowed women to enlist in the Air National Guard. Veltman joined under the Women’s Air Force, an organization that restricted women to ground duties, predominantly clerical and medical fields. Although it was suggested she go into a clerical career field, Veltman chose supply management.
“It was very difficult being one of the first non-medical women,” said Veltman in a 1990 interview. “We kind of had to prove ourselves to the others on a daily basis.”
Although difficult, Veltman did indeed prove herself to her fellow Airmen when she was named the supply squadron’s Outstanding Airman of the Year for the Air National Guard in 1984. Veltman strove for excellence and it was apparent when she became the first woman in the wing to achieve the rank of senior master sergeant, the third non-medical woman to achieve that rank Guard-wide.
“I believe the Tucson Air Guard has advancement opportunities for women if they’re willing to prove their worth with hard work and dedication,” said Veltman in 1986 during an interview for her promotion to senior master sergeant. “It’s an excellent field for women. It creates independence, and offers many chances for success.”
She was also the first woman in the wing to achieve the rank of chief master sergeant. Her promotion to chief took place on Valentine’s day 1990, exactly 17 years from the date of her initial enlistment. Veltman’s hard work and dedication cultivated a rich and rewarding career that culminated with her ascension to command chief master sergeant of the 162nd, the wing’s highest enlisted position, early in 2000.
“She broke through a barrier,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Rhodes, Inspector General of Inspections and Veltman’s son-in-law. “She had to fight to get where she wanted to go.”
During her 32-year career, Veltman held positions such as chief of the information systems technology branch, base education and training manager, assistant director of military and civilian personnel, and more. Veltman’s time at the 162nd led her through numerous careers fields touching the lives of many across the base and throughout the state.
Retired Colonel Karen Bence, a fellow wing member and long-time friend of Veltman, described her as, “An intricate part of the foundation that my career was built on.”
Bence met Veltman early in her career. One of the first things she learned from Veltman was to rely on herself first and foremost to manage her career. Veltman went on to teach Bence many more valuable lessons as Bence worked her way to becoming the mission support group commander before her retirement in 2011.
Chief told you the way it was, said Bence. She held people accountable and to a high standard, nothing less than what she expected of herself, and what she knew they could accomplish. Bence feels that Veltman’s commitment to the Wing was in her unwavering discipline and upstanding professionalism.
“She had no excuses,” said Bence, “Just determination and passion to always be her best in everything.”
Most knew her as a strong chief, but she was also an extremely compassionate person, said Rhodes.
Veltman faced many challenges and overcame many obstacles during her career, including her battle with breast cancer. As a breast cancer survivor, Veltman’s compassion could be seen in her support for others battling breast cancer, through her charitable contributions to breast cancer organizations and by fighting for the rights of those with breast cancer within the Guard.
Upon her retirement in 2005, Veltman said that she felt honored to have been a member of this outstanding organization.
“The Guard has been good for me and my family, and I am blessed to have played a part in this growing Guard family,” she said. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.”
Veltman leaves behind a heritage of feminine achievement teaching us that no matter what obstacles lay before us, we can overcome them and cultivate our dreams with hard work, determination and passion.
“Karen Veltman lived a life with purpose, Chief Veltman lived a career with passion,” said Bence. “She is a legacy in the 162nd that bonds us all. I am so grateful our careers and lives intertwined. She will be with me forever.”