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From the ‘WAF’ to the Guard, a woman reflects on her Air Force career

Airman Basic Brenda West sits for her official photo upon graduating from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in November 1974. At 18 West joined the Women’s Air Force, or WAF, which was abolished in 1976 and women were accepted into the military on much the same basis as men.  1976 was the same year in which the United States Air Force Academy began accepting female cadets. (Courtesy photo)

Airman Basic Brenda West sits for her official photo upon graduating from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in November 1974. At 18 West joined the Women’s Air Force, or WAF, which was abolished in 1976 and women were accepted into the military on much the same basis as men. 1976 was the same year in which the United States Air Force Academy began accepting female cadets. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. John “Smitty” Smith, the first enlistee of the 162nd Fighter Wing, helps then Staff Sgt. Brenda West load a fork lift with barrels of methyl ethyl keytone circa 1983. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. John “Smitty” Smith, the first enlistee of the 162nd Fighter Wing, helps then Staff Sgt. Brenda West load a fork lift with barrels of methyl ethyl keytone circa 1983. (Courtesy photo)

Fellow unit members present a microwave oven to then Staff Sgt. Brenda West in 1983. West’s coworkers, trying to lift her spirits after her mother passed away, gathered money for flowers and raised enough to purchase the new oven instead. (Courtesy photo)

Fellow unit members present a microwave oven to then Staff Sgt. Brenda West in 1983. West’s coworkers, trying to lift her spirits after her mother passed away, gathered money for flowers and raised enough to purchase the new oven instead. (Courtesy photo)

Brenda West, a staff sergeant in 1985, receives the Air Force Association Tucson Chapter Air National Guard Member of the Year award from Maj. Gen. Glen Van Dyke, then a colonel and commander of the unit. (Courtesy photo)

Brenda West, a staff sergeant in 1985, receives the Air Force Association Tucson Chapter Air National Guard Member of the Year award from Maj. Gen. Glen Van Dyke, then a colonel and commander of the unit. (Courtesy photo)

Senior Master Sgt. Brenda West teaches a supply management course to fellow members of the 162nd Fighter Wing here Feb. 26. After 36 years of service Sergeant West has a unique perspective on what it means to be a woman in the military. Women’s History Month, celebrated this March, recognizes Sergeant West and women like her who have greatly contributed to American society. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

Senior Master Sgt. Brenda West teaches a supply management course to fellow members of the 162nd Fighter Wing here Feb. 26. After 36 years of service Sergeant West has a unique perspective on what it means to be a woman in the military. Women’s History Month, celebrated this March, recognizes Sergeant West and women like her who have greatly contributed to American society. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- March is Women's History Month and a perfect time to honor the women who carved a path for today's female Airmen. Although her military uniform never included a prairie dress or apron, Senior Master Sgt. Brenda West began paving the way more than 36 years ago and is, nonetheless, a pioneer in every respect.

Originally enlisted into the Women's Air Force (WAF) in 1974 at the age of 18, Sergeant West still remembers the day when women weren't allowed to have pierced ears, but attended "charm school" - where they were taught to adeptly apply make-up, pluck their eyebrows, and walk and talk properly.

"We didn't wear hats either, except with our Class A uniforms, and a wrap-around skirt was part of our field uniform," Sergeant West said of her initial enlistment period that ended in 1978. She joined the Air Force Reserves, but moved from Youngstown, Ohio, to Tucson in 1980 when the steel mills shut down in her hometown.

Sergeant West started in the base supply warehouse as a traditional Guardsman in November of 1980 and eventually was hired on full time into supply by April of 1981. The unit was much smaller back then, and Sergeant West emotionally recalled the day when the unit pitched in to fly her back home to Youngstown when her mother was dying of cancer. "They bought me a microwave oven one year, too," she laughed.

"My mother taught me, 'Where there's a will, there's a way,' and that's how I have found the answers to so many questions along the way," she said.

Sometimes answers came at a price, like waiting on hold for an hour or more to track down parts for an aircraft. Sergeant West also recalled the days of pedaling 300 pounds of parts from the supply building to the hydraulics section on a 3-wheeled bicycle. Although computer technology and e-mail have greatly expedited the supply system, West claims the system itself remains efficient and the same as it was in the '70s.

The women's Air Force uniform, however, has undergone dramatic changes during her tenure. Long gone are the days of wrap-around skirts. "It has to be a challenge for the people who design the uniforms to maintain a professional look and still enhance who we are as women. The uniforms should be professional, yet enhancing," Sergeant West said.

One of the biggest changes is with the Air Force's physical training program, which recently underwent more stringent requirements for women. "I was never taught how to do men's pushups, but they changed the requirements when I was 48 and I had to learn to do them," West said.

"Our flight at basic training was the second set of women to do the obstacle course in the history of the United States Air Force. We did the course in our low quarter shoes without any physical training. Things have definitely changed since then."

Despite elbow surgery for an injury she incurred while training, Sergeant West persevered and has taken a more active role in helping other women overcome challenges in their lives, particularly from a psychological standpoint.

Now active in The Navigators, a ministry that focuses on meeting the spiritual needs of military personnel and their families, Sergeant West anticipates working with young female Airmen upon retiring next year. "I hope and pray others can use my life experiences to give them hope and to make it through hard times," she said.

"The dorms today are better, the food is better, the BX is better, but the situations in life for these Airmen are still the same," West explained. "Sometimes they just need a friend."

Time has made many things better for women in the Air Force, yet Sergeant West is still concerned with those issues that remain in both civilian and military environments--such as career equality and sexual assault prevention.

"There are more opportunities for women to progress in their careers, and also their voices are now being heard through the SAPR [Sexual Assault Prevention and Response] program," Sergeant West said. The SAPR program reinforces the Air Force's commitment to eliminate incidents of sexual assault through awareness and prevention training, education, victim advocacy, response, reporting and accountability.

Statistically women are still underrepresented in many careers; however these numbers continue to increase. The Air Force Personnel Center reports that 19.4 percent of the force is women, while the current population of women in the Air Force is 64,079. Currently, there are 631 (4.3 percent) female pilots, 280 (6.2 percent) female navigators and 175 (12.2 percent) air battle managers. This is a vast improvement over the single female dorm located at Sergeant West's first duty station at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.

"When I first got to McGuire, more women were coming in and there was no room in the only WAF Squadron dorm. So the base gave us a men's dorm to help with all the women. They at least put sinks in our rooms, which was great," West said.

Those were the days when vending machines were stocked with beer at tech schools. They were also the days of leaving the dorm rooms in inspection order and 'shake downs,' recalled West. "All the first sergeants would surround the dorms to see if anyone would throw contraband out the windows as the security police brought in the dogs," she said.

"We also had an individual who enjoyed seeing the women run out of the dorms at night by calling in bomb threats. It would happen every Tuesday during the summer months. So we slept out in the grass while they looked for bombs," she said.

Her memories are many and vivid, but--like all good things--her military career will come to an end. "I look back at when I joined and it seemed like such a long road ahead of me. I can't believe I'm at the end of that 37-year journey," said Sergeant West.

When asked what she will do in retirement, Senior Master Sgt. Brenda West replied, "Adjust to a slower pace and learn to quilt."