Airman to Colonel: First female vice paving the way

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Col. Sandra Wilson, 162nd Wing vice commander, poses for an official photo. Col. Wilson assumed the vice commander position in June 2020, and she is the first female and non-rated officer to hold that title. (Air National Guard photograph by Senior Master Sgt. Charles Givens)
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After enlisting more than 38 years ago, Col. Sandra Wilson blazed a path from enlisted to officer, reaching a new height in June this year, when she became the first female vice commander for the 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base, Tucson Ariz.

If that isn’t enough, Wilson is also the first non-rated officer to take the role.

Col. Jeffrey Butler, who was promoted from vice commander to the 162nd Wing commander earlier this year, selected Wilson as his successor because of her breadth of experience and leadership. However, he also recognized the inspirational appeal of her career path.

“Her deep leadership experience will ensure wing-level success. She’s a career potential poster-child,” said Butler. “She began serving as an enlisted U.S. Air Force active duty airman stationed at Clark AFB, Philippines, and is now an elite leader in the Air National Guard at the wing command level as a colonel.”

For Wilson, her experiences at various ranks in the chain have given her perspective when it comes to how she leads.

“It is really fun to have grown up as a young airman throughout the Air Force, and spend a significant portion of my career enlisted,” said Wilson. “To me when decisions are made, I immediately fall back and put myself in their chair. It is fun for me to look out for our youngest airman to our most senior person.”

In addition to wearing rank in both the enlisted and officer corps, Wilson has served on active duty, in the Air Force Reserves, and in the Air National Guard. Furthermore, she has worked in almost every group at the 162nd Wing, holding squadron command in the maintenance group and headquarters staff. Most recently she was the Mission Support Group commander, which she believes prepared her for wing leadership.

Col. Sandra Wilson, 162nd Wing vice commander, Arizona Air National Guard, works at her desk at Morris Air National Guard Base, Tucson, Ariz., July 26, 2020. Col. Wilson assumed the vice commander position in June 2020, and she is the first female and non-rated officer to hold that title. (Air National Guard photograph by Tech. Sgt. Edward Stramler)

“As a group commander you are looking out for the whole wing and the whole National Guard,” said Wilson. “I was always trying to do what was best for the entire wing.”

One of the few areas Wilson has not yet led has been the operational side of the wing. However, while she doesn’t fly F-16s or MQ-9s, Wilson quickly reached out to the operations group to help bring her up to speed.

“Just because I can’t fly one doesn’t mean that I won’t be a good ambassador for the wing,” Wilson said of the F-16 training mission. She added that she intends to work hard on the logistical elements to bring additional international partner nations to Tucson to train their pilots to fly the aircraft.

Butler added that as a non-rated vice commander, Wilson “offers invaluable non-rated diversity perspective to wing command.” He said that Wilson shows leadership performance potential to the non-rated officer corps, and “offers vision to all airmen in career potential.”

Indeed, Wilson’s most immediate goal focuses on the career potential and retention of the wing’s newest airmen.

“Retention is the key to our success. Why does an airman stay? Because they are feeling valued,” said Wilson. “The new recruits that come in the door — the student flight — they need to feel welcome from the second they sign that paper and raise their hand and take that oath.”

While Wilson’s career has the potential to influence the officers and enlisted under her leadership, she attributes much of her success to what she has learned from others at every rank.

“I don’t think I have one person that I could say was my mentor. I have been paying attention,” said Wilson. “I learn so much from all the enlisted. From just sitting and talking to them to hearing their perspective on things. I listened to [Brig.] Gen. McDonald when he was a maintenance group commander and I was a squadron commander. The same thing for Col. Butler and Col. Kinnison. I’d pay attention to what I think they do really well and I try to emulate it in my leadership style.”

Wilson started her military career in 1982 with a posting at Security Forces, Clark AFB, Philippines. She later served at Kelly AFB, Texas, before working in medical administration at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. In 1994, she joined the 162nd Fighter Wing. After serving for 14 years in the enlisted ranks, Wilson earned her commission through the Academy of Military Science in 1996.

In addition to her military service, Wilson also had a civilian public service career as a patrol officer and detective with the Tucson Police Department from 1990 to 2010. Her experience with the department helped leaders at the wing understand the city and the justice system on the occasions when it impacted unit members. Likewise, the Tucson Police Department also benefited from her experience in the Air National Guard.

“Each organization is getting your experience and knowledge that you earned and learned from the other entity,” said Wilson.

Despite already having a long, robust career, Wilson did not expect to take on this new position, but she shows no signs of slowing down.

“I was as surprised as anyone to be selected for this seat. I was very surprised and very humbled,” said Wilson. “I will leave a legacy, just wait and see.”

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