Air Force Col. Laura Lenderman recently assumed command of the 375th Air Mobility Wing here, a job she never thought she would take on decades ago when she lived here as a child.
She just knew what she wanted for her life, and from a young age she decided the Air Force would be part of her future.
She lived here during the early 1980s where her dad, Air Force Col. Gordon Cook, served as the vice commander’s executive officer for Military Airlift Command, a predecessor of Air Mobility Command. She said everything was going well — her father enjoyed his job, her mother, Marilou, had just won the base golf championship, and she and her sister were doing well in sports.
“I actually had an epiphany. It became crystal clear that this is what I wanted for my family,” she said. “It didn’t really dawn on me what my dad did every day when he went to work in Building 1600, but in my 12-year-old mind I knew that this is a great life, that the Air Force is a special organization, and that I wanted to be a part of this service when I grew up.”
Appreciates Air Force’s Lifestyle
She said that it was a game-changer for her. “From that moment forward,” she said, “my focus was on going into the Air Force, serving my country, and building the kind of life my father had created with our family.”
Lenderman and her sister, Kristin, swam with the “Scott Sharks,” played softball, golf, volleyball, basketball, and bowled competitively, traveling around the state for tournaments. She said Scott AFB established the foundation for sports in her life, and when they moved to Virginia, she continued to hone her softball abilities while gaining leadership skills along the way.
“I learned a lot about drawing out the best in people from my high school softball coach, Mr. Rob Benton,” she said. “Like my father, he was quiet yet steady. My leadership style is heavily influenced by these two men.”
As her senior year of high school approached, she focused on her studies. She received an Air Force ROTC scholarship and headed to Duke University in North Carolina, where she earned a degree in electrical engineering.
Because she didn’t have the opportunity to take calculus and computer courses in high school, she said she got off to a rough start in the academic program. So she sought out tutors and took advantage of one-on-one time with instructors so she could understand the material.
“I’ve always been able to focus throughout my life, and this was an area that was tough, so I challenged myself to do better,” Lenderman said. “I also remembered the words of my mother who has always said ‘nothing is impossible.’ I took that advice to heart and brought my grades up from a C average my first semester to graduating with a 3.5 GPA. What I really liked about this [area of study] is that it makes you think logically. If you can think through a problem, ask for help, and take advantage of all the resources out there, then you can overcome even the toughest challenges.”
Pilot Training, Meeting Future Spouse
After graduation, she earned a pilot training slot when the openings were dwindling due to downsizing across the Air Force. She said she considers herself fortunate to have had the opportunity to go through pilot training, because a lot of her colleagues and friends didn’t get the chance. At the time, women weren’t permitted to fly fighters, but she had always wanted to fly the T-38 like her father. Looking back, she said that she didn’t fully realize what a good decision it would turn out to be.
“The first day of my first assignment, I walked in and met my future husband [Dave]. Here was this outgoing, funny guy who kept everybody laughing,” she said. “We were just friends for the longest time until he spent some time with my family during parents’ weekend. He made a great impression on both of my parents, and my mom said she thought I should date him. Not surprisingly, she was right. We started dating. Within a year, we were engaged and married — that was 19 years ago.”
They decided to get married at Disney World, which was already a place of special memories for her since childhood. Since their wedding on May 26, 1996, it has remained a special place over the years to visit. Future plans include renewing their vows there on their 20th anniversary.
After graduating pilot training, the Lendermans both chose to fly the KC-135 refueling aircraft and were assigned to Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota. Flying the KC-135 together, the Lendermans got the unique opportunity to spend most of their assignments together, including overseas deployments, where they would serve together in places such as France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
“I’m grateful for that time, gaining flying hours and serving alongside my husband,” she said. “We couldn’t always be together and do everything that we wanted to do at the same time, but at the end of it all, we both had the opportunity to lead airmen and serve our country. And we’ve had people who believed in us, helped us, and encouraged us along the way.”
This is one of those assignments that they pursued even though it separates them for a short time. Her husband, Col. Dave Lenderman, is the 22nd Operations Group commander at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, and has “custody” of their two cats: Tuffy and Tinkerbell.
Functioning as a Team
Lenderman’s husband said he looks upon his wife as a teammate.
“We are a team,” he said. “We both have strengths and weaknesses, and fortunately those strengths and weaknesses tend to offset each other. Like most teams, we discuss our issues and challenges with each other, and this tends to lead to improved performance in our jobs. Most of the time, it is just nice to have someone listen to how the day went.”
He also said that his wife is a great leader.
“Laura has always cared more about everyone who she serves with than she does about herself,” he said. “That is just part of Laura’s DNA.”
Laura said one of the main advantages to being a dual-military couple is having a mentor who is going through the same experiences. “You have someone who ‘gets it’ right there, and who can give you the feedback that you might not get from your peers or subordinates. You need that honest feedback; you need to hear what is not always easy to hear. I’m married to my best friend, and I have my biggest cheerleader and coach right beside me.”
She added, “One thing I truly believe is that, when we work together, nothing is impossible. A goal can take some time or may even take a different route than we thought it would, but it’s always possible … especially when we do it together.”