Honoring Women’s History includes looking to future

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jessica Brown
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
In 1992, then 2nd Lt. Jennifer Uptmor arrived at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., to discover she was one of four women in her undergraduate pilot training class.

On her first day of training, her leadership attempted to put women in "their place" at a commander's call.

"On my first day of undergrad pilot training, our squadron commander walked into the auditorium, which was filled with more than 70 male students, and he looked right at me," said Col. Jennifer Uptmor, 22nd Operations Group commander. "Then he said, 'Which one of you came here to get married?'"

Uptmor said she was appalled and felt awkward as her male peers erupted with laughter throughout the auditorium.

Without missing a beat, she responded, "Are you talking to me, sir? Because I'm here to kick their ass; I'm not here to play or get married."

Since graduating pilot training, Uptmor has found herself similarly "uneasy" at times with friends, peers and even her leadership.

While she was a squadron commander, she flew a combatant commander to a highly volatile area in U.S. Central Command and had a close call with fate.

"If we had been right on scheduled arrival, we would have been part of the 6-foot crater that was our parking spot," she said.

After the mission a male member of her crew turned to her and mentioned, "Thank goodness we didn't get hit - you're a mom!"

She quickly replied, "And I was flying fathers, sons and uncles too, not to mention a four-star admiral."

Uptmor said she learned to be bold through her mentors and often times looks to other successful service members for advice.

"Retired Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward once said statements like that need to be confronted," said Uptmor. "So, that's exactly what I did. If you want people to take you seriously, you have to lean in and make them consider you."

Uptmor believes in the importance of recognizing women's history month, but know what lies ahead is much more important.

"I think we've come a long way in the United States Air Force, but there's certainly still room for improvement," said Uptmor.

Uptmor named several "firsts" for women in the Air Force that she considers important, to include the first female Air Force four-star general, Janet Wolfenbarger, the first female officer to command the United States Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, and the first female Secretary of the Air Force, Honorable Sheila Widnall.

"But what's next for women in the Air Force?" Uptmor asked. "I consider myself a strategist. Strategists don't concern themselves completely with history. We concern ourselves with what's out front and what the possibilities are. That's where I see women's paths and our future - with great appreciation for the women I just mentioned, for breaking barriers."

Women must do their part to continue the mission, which is why mentorship is important, said Uptmor.

"One of my mentors, retired Col. Kim Olson, constantly provides me with encouragement," said Uptmor. "Sometimes when life-work balance gets tough, I turn to her and she will say, 'Jen, I told you could do it. I never said it would be easy.'"

Uptmor also turns to her family for encouragement.

"My father-in-law is just amazing," said Uptmor. "I found that while I cherish the accomplishments of other women in the Air force, men are still champions for our cause, and my father-in-law is just phenomenal."

Uptmor said her father-in-law, a retired Air Force colonel, has inspired her to chase her dreams in the Air Force.

"Some women are tentative, they're afraid to lean in, so they'll sit and let opportunities pass them by," said Uptmor. "You can't wait for the train to pass and try to catch it. You have to jump for it. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't be in the military or achieve great things, even if your spouse is in the Air Force too. Do what you think is best for you and your family. If you're a go getter, don't tell yourself it's OK to settle." Women are proving every day that they can sit at the table and be the leaders our nation needs.