Team Dover women weave their stories to strengthen others

  • Published
  • By Roland Balik
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
In 1948, Staff Sgt. Esther Blake, the first woman in the United States Air Force, unintentionally set the path for women to follow as members of the Air Force for generations to come.

Since Blake, thousands of women have joined the Air Force to become aviators, commanders, technicians, generals and have had successful careers, while still maintaining a family or household.

Keeping the National Women's History Month theme of "Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives" in mind, the Women's History Month committee here, asked seven Team Dover women four questions about their obstacles, accomplishments and successes, both personal and professional.

These are their stories that make up the fabric of Team Dover.

Col. Lisa Pike, 436th Mission Support Group commander:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference?

My parents raised me to believe I could do anything I wanted to do if I was willing to work hard for it and always give my best and teachers  encouraged me to do my best to make a difference. In my career, there have been many people (supervisors/peers/subordinates; men/women; officer/enlisted) who have influenced and inspired me. I have worked for many supervisors who really understood the importance of empowerment and thus provided me opportunities to excel. I have also worked with professionals who understood the importance of teaching and supporting someone who was senior in rank but junior in experience. As a young officer, I had the privilege of being mentored by a chief master sergeant and master sergeant, both men, who I learned so much from. My point is, look everywhere for your mentors; they may or may not "look like you." As a senior officer, I have three incredible female general officers whom I worked for in the past that I look to as I continue on my journey as well as many people I work with and learn from every day.

How has that empowerment contributed to your success in the Air Force or your career?
Being empowered by your superiors to be bold and make decisions is very important. If someone trusts me enough to empower me to make decisions and do what I think is right then I'd better know what I am doing. It makes you look hard at your decisions and think about their long-term effects and what those decisions may do for/to others. It helped me grow and learn along the way and understand the importance of empowering others.

What were some of your challenges?
I have been so blessed I haven't seen many things as challenges. Rather, I see opportunities and try to do things to help provide even more opportunities for those coming behind me.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey? 
The same advice I'd give to everyone. Be honest, accountable and involved, always give your best, know your job, and understand how your actions affect others. Have a voice. Have mentors; find someone you trust and look up to and have a continual dialogue/relationship with them. Challenge yourself to work outside you comfort zone and be willing to embrace change; without change, there is no progress. Without change, I would not be able to do what I am doing today and thus am grateful for those who came before us and made it possible for women to serve.

Col. Gretchen Wiltse, 512th Mission Support Group commander:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference?

My parents set the stage. I was raised to always do my best, try anything, return things better than I borrowed them, etc. When I was in third grade we lived near a former Vietnam POW, Capt. David Baker (retired as Brig. Gen.) who introduced me to the existence of the Air Force Academy and was my first taste of military life and sacrifice for country. My third grade teacher was also a former Marine. His stories and demeanor also impacted me. It was then that I decided I was going to the Academy for college and I never changed my mind. I also met a great Chief when I was a brand new Lt on the flight line at McChord Air Force Base, Washington. He took me by the arm and told me to listen well, do what he said and spend time with "his" Airmen. His lessons were invaluable and we are still great friends today.

How has that empowerment contributed to you success in the Air Force or your career?
I have never feared being myself (after all--everyone else is taken), doing my best and taking some risks. I have always tried my best to take care of my people and to get to know them on a personal level. I have been cared for 100-fold in return. I have never clamored for my next job but have been blessed with great ones every time.

What were some of your challenges?
My Air Force jobs have been awesome. My biggest challenges have been personal. Deciding to leave active duty to raise my boys left me wondering who "I" was after they got old enough to be in school full time. Having the faith that I could succeed on my own when I chose to get divorced was huge. God blessed me by putting someone in my path who offered me a full time job. Pursuing the right team of doctors to take my medical complaints seriously and agree to remove my brain tumor took persistence and faith. My quick and full recovery is another testament to the Lord being good to me. Being completely at peace with my health care team (docs, God, family and friends) made that challenge easy to overcome.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey?
Be your own person. Have a passion for what you do at work and in your personal life. I love the people I work with every day (the less-than-perfect IT system make me crazy though). I love going to spin class in the morning--because of the people, not so much the pain and sweat. I love singing with our church choir--again, it's the people. I am an introvert by nature but once I am out, I love to get to know peoples' personal stories. I have read many inspiring books on leadership and find great nuggets in each. One of the best is "All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten."

Lt. Col. Juliet DeGuzman, 436th Medical Operations Squadron commander:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference?

My parents inspired and empowered me. They have provided me with examples of how to make a difference by showing me to always be compassionate and generous to others, and to be always grateful for what I have. Growing up, I saw my parents always helping others even though they didn't have much to offer. My father made a living as a tailor and was also generous enough to take time to teach underprivileged young men and women his trade as a tailor in the community so that those who had interest in tailoring can learn for free. At an early age they instilled in me moral values by teaching me to be always respectful not just to adults but to every individual I meet, by making me accountable for the choices, decisions, and mistakes I make. They taught me integrity, loyalty and honesty by the way they conducted their day to day interactions with people whether they were the richest or poorest in the community.

How has that empowerment contributed to you success in the Air Force or your career? 
My parents were a huge influence in my life. The empowerment and support that I have received directed me to choose the right education and career for myself. The values that were instilled in me while growing up shaped me into the person that I am today and greatly contributed to my success.

What were some of your challenges?
Life in the service is a journey and it has its own unique challenges. As a wife and mother with a military career, one of the challenges is trying to balance my military duties and family responsibilities. Explaining to my young children why I have to go away and deploy to the war zone to take care of our troops was difficult because you have to make sure they understood the reason without making them feel fearful. At the same time you have to maintain some normalcy by staying involved and connected in their activities while temporarily separated.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey?
The Air Force offers opulent opportunities for professional and personal growth. It is ultimately up to you what you want to make of your career. Your commitment, passion, and determination are the hallmarks for success. Be proactive and set your personal and professional goals and constantly look for ways to advance and reach your goals. Take advantage of the education, and training that are afforded to you. These are tools and resources which are designed to help prepare you for that next step in your career.

Maj. Rayna Lowery, 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference?

My grandparents and parents. All served in the Armed Forces.

How has that empowerment contributed to you success in the Air Force or your career?
They started my core values of God first, others second and self last. These family values blended right into our Air Force core values!

What were some of your challenges?
Overcoming and coping with mild dyslectic reading and dealing with severe motion sickness during air travel.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey?
Never stop growing. Always fight for your dreams. Be sure to nurture talent!

Staff Sgt. Mollie Roth, 326th Airlift Squadron loadmaster:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference?

My peers and supervisors, especially Chief Master Sgt. Amy Campbell, who has shaped and guided me thus far in my career, as well as my children and husband who always bring me inspiration.

How has that empowerment contributed to you success in the Air Force or your career?
I always see examples of the expectations that are laid out before me, and have never been able to strive for anything less.

What were some of your challenges?
Some of my challenges have been living up to expectations, overcoming the fear of failure and balancing school, the Air Force and my family life.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey?
You can do it! Seriously... once you make up your mind, you shouldn't let anything stand in your way.

Laura Tasker, 436th Airlift Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and 709th Airlift Squadron executive officer:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference?

I've had many inspirations throughout my life and career, starting with my parents and my older sister who were all shocked but encouraging when I decided to join the Air Force after high school graduation. They have always been my biggest fans. They knew I needed to find my purpose in the world and I wouldn't find it living in small town Arkansas.

As a young Senior Airman working at HQ PACAF, I had a fantastic supervisor, Lt. Col. Carl Cruz, who allowed me the time to become an American Red Cross volunteer and take two-three college classes each semester. He inspired me to let go of my dream of becoming a First Sergeant and instead become an officer. I thought the best way I could help people would be as a First Sergeant and didn't think I was good enough or smart enough to be an officer, but he convinced me that I was capable so I went for it. I was awarded a SOAR scholarship (Scholarships for Outstanding Airmen to ROTC) and separated from active duty. I completed my Human Services degree at Hawaii Pacific University and earned my commission as a Services Officer.

It was when I was a second lieutenant that I found my biggest inspiration, my husband, Don. He taught me (and continues to teach me) through his own actions what it takes to be a good officer and leader. He lives and breathes the Air Force core values at work and at home with our family, and there is no one that I owe more to than him.

As far as my current position as the Team Dover Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), there have been many people in this field who have shown immense passion toward helping victims and standing up against sexual assault. However, Mrs. Janaee Stone, the Hill Air Force Base, Idaho SARC, tops them all. She has a heart of gold and is an exceptional advocate for sexual assault victims. No one fights harder to ensure victims are taken care of, above and beyond Air Force or Department of Defense standards and I hope that I can live up to her standard.

How has that empowerment contributed to your success in the Air Force or your career?
Having great supporters and role models in my life has given me the courage to take chances and reach for my goals. I've always looked for jobs and positions where I could help people. Starting as a Red Cross volunteer at a hospital in Hawaii, then nursing school, then as a mortuary officer and officer in charge of the Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma Honor Guard, to organizing blood drives at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. But when the SAPR program began in 2005, I was in the first class for Volunteer Victim Advocates and I knew that was it, I had found my purpose. I've been a volunteer for the program since 2005 and was able to step in as the temporary SARC when I was a Reservist in Japan while the SARC was deployed. During our previous assignment at Hill AFB, I was hired as a full time Victim Advocate which then offered me the experience I needed to become the Dover SARC. My friends and family who encouraged me along the way inspired me to keep searching for what I was meant to do, and helped me get me to where I am today.

What were some of your challenges?
While in college I was going through a devastating divorce, it was the worst time of my life. I failed a couple of nursing classes and lost my SOAR scholarship. My AFROTC Detachment Commander said if I stayed in nursing school and failed one more class, I would have to leave AFROTC. I decided it was more important to me to become an officer than a nurse, so I changed my degree to Human Services with a focus in Substance Abuse Counseling. I graduated and returned to active duty as a Services officer, which I absolutely loved.

Until 2006, when I was Force Shaped. The Air Force cut 72 percent of Services officers in my year group, and I was one of them. I was devastated again. I had 10 years on active duty and couldn't believe it was over. Then a Reserve recruiter started talking to me about joining the Reserves. At first I was too upset about being involuntarily separated so I didn't want to discuss the Reserves. But my dad and my husband helped me see that my AF career didn't have to be over. So I joined the Reserves and it's been fantastic. It's much easier to manage assignments when you are not active duty married to active duty (join spouse). So now I follow Don and work my Reserve assignments around his. Currently I am the Executive Officer for Lt. Col. Jeff Armentrout, the 709th Airlift Squadron commander. I've always worked on the Mission Support Group side of the Air Force, so working in Operations Group is a completely different experience. It's a nice change and I even had the opportunity to train in the C-5 simulator! I didn't crash but the landing was pretty rough.

This brings me to my next challenge - balance. Balancing my Air Force career, my civilian career, 3 boys and an active duty husband is not easy. I have a resume full of jobs because we don't stay in one place very long. It takes months to find a new job then once I get settled, we move again. Not fun. But it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. There are always new opportunities waiting and I just have to be willing to take that next step.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey?
For young women, my advice would be to get a degree and then get your Master's Degree now. Time gets more precious when you have a career and kids so if you can get education out of the way early, it will save you a lot of headaches later. It's tough to be a woman in the military, especially when only 14 percent of the military is comprised of women. No one is going to take an interest in your career, whether military or civilian, as much as you will so make it happen. Military spouses, don't be afraid to take a lower level job or volunteer. All those experiences add up on a resume and will lead to better positions.

As far as personal growth, for me that is intertwined in my professional growth, but I will say don't forget to take care of yourself when you are taking care of everyone else. Kids, husband, house cleaning, bills--there is an endless list of things that need to be done and taken care of. But your goals and dreams are important too, don't lose sight of that. Most importantly, don't sweat the small stuff. Life is too short to fight with the hubby about picking his dirty socks up off the floor. Let go of the small stuff and remember we are only on this Earth for a moment, Carpe Diem!

Dawne Nickerson-Banez, owner/operator of Frankfurt Bakery & Deli, in Dover, Delaware:
Who has inspired/empowered you and provided you with examples of how to make a difference? 
My parents. They are the most giving, caring people I know. They gave me the sense that I can do anything. I took what they instilled in me and put my own spin on it to make a difference in my community.

How has that empowerment contributed to you success in the Air Force or your career?
I feel like I have a great work ethic, I am giving and caring and try to take care of others around me. I always try to do the right thing and treat others how I would like to be treated.

What were some of your challenges? 
In both military and civilian society, the challenge of working in a "man's" world. However, I never let that challenge stop me. I am proud of things I have done. Granted there are things I would do differently, in hindsight, overall though, I am happy with where I am and what I have accomplished.

What advice would you give women for their professional and personal growth journey?
Don't second guess yourself. You can do anything you aspire to do. There will be challenges, and there will be failures, but staying focused on the end goal, working hard, and learning from past experiences will ultimately pay off huge rewards.

Without exception, Dover AFB has no shortage of such women who have stepped up to the challenge, overcome personal and/or professional obstacles, passed through barriers and have had great success. These are a few of the many women that continue to weave their story as part of the U.S. Air Force and Team Dover.