Breaking barriers through opportunities

Then-Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., poses for a portrait on the flightline July 15, 2016. Leavitt was responsible for 34 squadrons at 13 installations constituting the Air Force’s most diverse flying wing. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum)

As commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, Maj. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, oversees approximately 2,800 Airmen and Civilians located in 1,040 offices around the United States.

The mission of the organization is to attract the most talented Airmen and space professionals to preserve the security of the United States. AFRS is also manages strategic advertising for the U.S. Air Force.

But Leavitt is also well known at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. From April 2016 to June 2018, she served as commander of the 57th Wing — the first woman to command a combat fighter wing. She was also the service’s first female fighter pilot.

The 57th Wing is the Air Force’s most diverse flying wing, comprising 37 squadrons at 13 installations with a variety of more than 130 aircraft.

The following article was first published in April 2017.

With more than 3,000 flying hours, she has broken more than the sound barrier, graduating from and becoming an instructor at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis AFB, and attaining operational experience in operations Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

An F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft piloted by then-Col. Jeannie Leavitt receives fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker during her final flight, May 29, 2014, over North Carolina. (Air Force photograph by Senior Airman John Nieves Comacho)

Her résumé speaks for itself.

It’s a résumé full of incredible accomplishments — in addition to breaking the barrier to become the first female fighter pilot.

In a 2017 interview, Leavitt commented on the opportunities afforded her and her accomplishments.

“All of these were opportunities, even flying fighters when it was new for women,” said then-Brig. Gen. Leavitt. “I didn’t think of them as breaking barriers. Effectively, since I was the first female to do those things, I did break them, but it was all based on opportunities that the Air Force gave me.”

For Leavitt, every accomplishment of her 25-year career flying the F-15E Strike Eagle stems from seizing opportunities as challenges and overcoming them every step of the way.

When Leavitt graduated pilot training at the top of her class, she selected the F-15E Strike Eagle to be her primary aircraft; however, because of a Department of Defense policy restricting women from flying fighters, the Air Force Personnel Center denied her request.

Originally, Leavitt received an assignment to pilot KC-10s at March Air Force Base, Calif., but never began the training because the policy change occurred shortly thereafter. Once the policy was altered and women were allowed in the cockpit of fighter jets, she was hesitant to become the first female.

“Quite honestly, I didn’t want to be the first,” said Leavitt. “I actually asked if I could be the 12th, 13th or 14th. I didn’t want the attention or the added pressure of being the first. When someone asked, I said, ‘If those are the terms of the deal, I’ll take it because I really want to fly fighters.’”

With an aerospace engineering degree from the University of Texas, Leavitt may have joined the Air Force to fly, but she stayed for the people.

“I wanted to serve my country,” said Leavitt, “The sense of purpose, being a part of something bigger than yourself, being a part of a team, making a difference, defending the nation for my children is so important to me.”

Actor Samuel L. Jackson poses with then Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt after receiving a challenge coin from her during a media event for Captain Marvel at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 20, 2019. Leavitt, the first Air Force female fighter pilot, was a consultant on the movie, and Jackson reprised his Nick Fury role. (DOD photograph by Shannon Collins)

Her commitment to the mission provided her another opportunity to break barriers. The DOD policy changed once again to allow women into combat fighter roles. Leavitt soon faced a new set of challenges as a participant in one of the Air Force’s largest joint training exercises: Red Flag.

“When I was a brand new Strike Eagle wingman and I came out to Red Flag, I was very much a target,” said Leavitt. “Everyone knew who I was and knew that I was the first female fighter pilot. Quite honestly, there were a lot of adversaries who wanted to take down my aircraft. You have to take that challenge and turn it into an opportunity, and that’s what we did.”

Since, Leavitt has excelled from training to now a leader of Airmen.

“My favorite part of the day is spending time with Airmen,” said Leavitt. “I am so truly honored and humbled to lead the Airmen of the 57th Wing. Spending time with Airmen energizes me. It’s incredible because every Airman truly has a story. To hear their stories and to see how motivated they are to be a part of this organization is truly refreshing for me.”

Leavitt cherishes the opportunities the Air Force has afforded her and is grateful to connect with and lead future generations of Airmen.

“My advice to Airmen is to do the absolute best in whatever assignment they’re placed in,” said Leavitt. “I have all kinds of assignments and interesting jobs, some not being the most desirable. I would just say to excel in any opportunity you’re given. If you’re presented with a challenge, turn it into an opportunity and make the most of it.”


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