Female Academy graduate made history throughout career

Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger relinquished command of Air Force Materiel Command and retired June 8, 2015. Wolfenbarger’s 35-year career included several notable “firsts,” including being a part of the first class of female cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1976 and becoming the first female four-star general in the Air Force in 2012. (Air Force photograph)

On June 28, 1976, 157 women became the first female cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Class of 1980 was the first to graduate women, with a total of 97 graduating that year.

In 1976, all the U.S. service academies had been ordered to admit women. That year, both male and female cadets took part in the same academic and physical education programs. The only exception was contact sports.

One member of that first class of women was Janet Wolfenbarger. She earned a Bachelors of Science in Engineering Science, and went on to work as an engineer and then to oversee the development of various weapons systems.

On June 5, 2012, Wolfenbarger made history when she became the first female four-star general in the U.S. Force, and assumed command of Air Force Materiel Command.

After 35 years of active duty service, and three years at the helm of AFMC, Wolfenbarger relinquished command and retired June 8, 2015.

Her tenure at AFMC saw many changes to the command, and the bases under her direction.

Three weeks after she assumed command of AFMC in June 2012, Wolfenbarger said, “We have a responsibility to make our institution — our system — better, so the people who come along after us can benefit from improvements to the way we accomplish our mission.”

In looking at the changes to AFMC during her tenure, it is clear Wolfenbarger lived up to that responsibility.

“The AFMC reorganization from 12 centers to five centers was a major part of the Air Force’s response to the Department of Defense budget challenges,” the general said. “By consolidating overhead, we improved the way AFMC accomplishes our diverse mission, and that provides better support to the warfighter. Establishing a single center with a single commander for each primary mission has enabled us to standardize and continuously improve business processes across a mission enterprise, focused on achieving the art of the possible.”

Most recently, the Air Force established AFMC’s sixth and newest center, the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, which was formally activated on May 5, 2015.

“We determined there was merit in centralizing installation management functions that were previously executed in a decentralized manner across all of the major commands. Centralizing allowed us to realize synergies and reduce resourcing,” said Wolfenbarger. “This was the biggest strategic initiative that was put on the table in response to the Secretary of Defense’s mandate to reduce management headquarters by 20 percent. It allows us to provide more effective and efficient installation and expeditionary combat support capabilities to commanders and mission partners.”

Making the most out of opportunity is not new for the general. Indeed, her entire career has been shaped by leveraging opportunities, often amid challenges — from the time she entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1976 until she became the first female four-star general in the Air Force.

“I never anticipated that my career would include a promotion to brigadier general, much less this opportunity to serve at the highest rank in our Air Force,” Wolfenbarger said. “I was a member of the Academy’s first class of female cadets, and my experience there really provided me with a foundation I’ve relied on throughout my career. The Academy put me in situations that stretched me mentally, physically, emotionally and academically. I came out on the other side of those experiences knowing I am far more capable than I ever thought I could be. That knowledge gave me a belief in myself that I have relied on ever since.”

After graduation, Wolfenbarger began her career in acquisition as an engineer at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. She held several positions in the F-22 System Program Office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and served as the F-22 Lead Program Element Monitor at the Pentagon. Later, the general was the B-2 System Program Director for the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson. She also commanded ASC’s C-17 Systems Group, Mobility Systems Wing.

She was the Service’s Director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence at the Pentagon, then served as Director of the Headquarters AFMC Intelligence and Requirements Directorate. She served as AFMC vice commander from December 2009 to September 2011. Prior to her assignment as AFMC commander, Wolfenbarger was the Military Deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition at the Pentagon.

“I have spent my entire career working hard and doing the very best I could at every job my Air Force gave me,” the general said. “That’s the career advice I would give any Airman today: Work hard and do your very best in every job that you are given. Couple that with bringing a positive attitude with you to work every day. That’s my simple recipe for success.”

Reflecting on her time at AFMC, Wolfenbarger said, “It has been an absolute privilege to serve as commander of the very command I grew up in,” she said. “I am so proud of our Airmen — both in AFMC and across our United States Air Force — and the remarkable work they do every day. I am honored to have served alongside these heroes for the past three and a half decades.”

However, her retirement has not seen an end to her support of the U.S. military, or women in the service.

On June 15, 2016, the Defense Department announced that Wolfenbager would serve as chair of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

DACOWITS is one of the oldest Department of Defense federal advisory committees. The Committee is composed of civilian women and men appointed by the Secretary of Defense to provide advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment, retention, employment, integration, well-being, and treatment of servicewomen in the Armed Forces. Since 1951, the Committee has submitted over 1,000 recommendations to the Secretary of Defense for consideration. As of 2019, approximately 98 percent have been either fully or partially adopted by the Department.


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