Women’s History Month: ‘You can do anything you want’

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Victor J. Caputo
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Keena Bassi wanted to be a mechanic in the Air Force. She was given an open mechanical billet when she left for Basic Military Training, and put several different mechanical jobs on her "dream" sheet.

Much to her surprise, the job that Bassi received was for vehicle dispatch; a far cry from the trade she desired. When her group commander obligatorily asked her flight if they had any questions, she raised her hand and asked to speak with the colonel privately.

She joined to be a mechanic, and if she was going to be forced to do something else she didn't want to do, she might as well be separated from the Air Force right then and there, said now-Senior Master Sgt. Bassi, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron first sergeant.

The colonel told her to go to her quarters and allow him to think about it. Within two hours he called her back to his office to let her know that she was going to be a hydraulic mechanic.

That was the first time Bassi had to stand up for herself as an Airman, and it wasn't the last time she had to.

Aircraft maintenance isn't known for being the most calm and caring field in the Air Force, and the military wasn't as amenable in the early 1990s as it is now.

"I'm a minority," she said. "I've always felt I've had to fight a little harder than the average person to get the positions I wanted."

Her predominately-male career field has led to her being one-of-a-kind several times: when she made staff sergeant at her first assignment at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, she was the only female E-5. She was the only female Senior NCO while she was at Travis AFB, California. After a recent retirement, she is even now the only female senior NCO in the 22nd AMXS here.

Bassi attributes much of the strength that gets her through these challenges to the upbringing her father, a Korean War veteran, gave her. He taught her a lot of her mechanical abilities, helped her not to be afraid of certain things and showed her how to get what she wanted.

"You need to learn how to do things yourself," Bassi recalls her father saying. "As a female, you should never expect that a male is going to help you do what you need to do to progress in your life."

She progressed through the ranks and eventually became a section chief after promoting to technical sergeant, overseeing more than 200 Airmen. She considers this position the most difficult job a maintenance Airmen can get.

It was during her tenure in that difficult job that her first sergeant at the time began to push her towards obtaining a diamond and becoming a "shirt" herself.

"He saw something in me that maybe I didn't see in myself," said Bassi. "He allowed me to fill his seat when he would go on leave, and ultimately, he is the reason I became a first sergeant."

Bassi submitted her application to become a first sergeant and was denied. She followed the advice of her superiors and resubmitted a month later only to be denied a second time.

Her squadron superintendent was adamant that her package be accepted and made phone call after phone call, eventually speaking with the Air Mobility Command command chief master sergeant. The third application was accepted soon after.

It was decided that Bassi would break in her diamond at McConnell, and she quickly began to work her way around base helping Airmen wherever she was needed.

One of her first positions was as first sergeant of the 22nd Force Support Squadron, and she immediately began impacting the lives of not only the Airmen of her squadron, but those of Airmen throughout the whole base.

Tech. Sgt. Terrance Williams, at the time a member of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron, met Bassi through his wife, who worked in the 22nd FSS.
"My wife was pregnant during one of my deployments," said Williams. "She was always mentioning Sergeant Bassi's name, so I felt like I knew her before I had met her."

Bassi made it a point to greet Williams alongside his wife when he returned from that deployment in a show of support for her fellow Airmen.

"Ever since then, she's been a mentor to both me and my wife," he said. "I would love to have a person like Sergeant Bassi by my side everywhere I go because I can guarantee she will always have your back. She is the image of a great Air Force first sergeant."

As much as she enjoyed helping people and getting her Airmen through hard times, Bassi decided that she would give up her diamond after three years and return to her career field.

The next goal Bassi set for herself was to become a pro-super in the 22nd AMXS, which she quickly accomplished. She would go to lunch with some of her coworkers once a week, and it was during one of these lunches that she realized she had to get her diamond back.

"While we're all sitting around having lunch, the boys started talking football, planes and work," she said.

Bassi's mind kept wandering away from her peers' conversation and back to the problems an Airman in her unit was facing.

"While they were all sitting there having this little sidebar conversation, I'm sitting there really quietly thinking 'I wonder how he's doing?' and 'What do I need to say to him when I get back?'" she said. "It was literally at that moment that I realized I was in the wrong career field. I had already conquered my challenge of being a pro-super. I had already made it in maintenance. I knew I had to move on."

The complicated process to get her diamond back involved getting the wing command chief's blessing, but it took no more than 30 seconds for her to receive it.

Soon enough, Bassi was on her way to Osan Air Base, South Korea, for a year- long tour before she came back to McConnell. She decided during her stay in Korea that she would finish her current enlistment and retire before the beginning of 2016.

Her return to Kansas put her right back in her old squadron, the 22nd AMXS, where she was greeted with open arms and brand new experiences.

Because the 22nd AMXS is so large, two first sergeants are assigned to the unit, a situation that is not covered in training.

"That in and of itself was a new challenge to me," said Bassi.

The hundreds of Airmen in the squadron naturally led to higher rates of disciplinary action, but also required even more time from Bassi and her associate first sergeant to take care of their people on a personal level.

"Someone had to take the discipline piece, and I didn't mind being that person," she said. "I made the decision to handle all of the administrative action that had to be brought up to the commander, while Master Sgt. Timothy Bayes [former 22nd AMXS first sergeant] helped people with the more day-to-day problems their Airmen faced."

The nature of the work that Bassi handled in the 22nd AMXS has put her in the situations most people want to avoid, but she reminds herself that sometimes it's just as important to take care of the Air Force as a whole as it is to care for an individual.

"There are two parts to the Air Force: taking care of the people and protecting the institution," she said. "If you do those things together, the Air Force mission will continue."

Bassi knew in her heart as soon as she returned to McConnell that she was at the end of her career, but she is very proud of what she has accomplished.

"There are great things about being a first sergeant: helping people, getting them the right resources and helping them through personal issues, and I have done a lot of that," she said.

She will continue to strive to be the image of an Air Force first sergeant up until she retires, and will be a shining example of what can be accomplished when an Airman puts her heart into what she wants.