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Women in the Air Force: A walk in their boots

Episode 6: "Awoken Memoirs; stories of the Airman Heritage Museum", Women in the Air Force (WAF). The WAF was formed in 1948 when President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, allowing women to serve directly on the military. With the separation of the Air Force from the Army, the Air Force gained both the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Army Nurses Corps personnel to execute the Air Force mission. The WAC became the model used to create the WAF. The women formally members of branches of the Army, former WAC and Army Nurses Corps personnel became members of the United States WAF! By the mid-1970’s the Air Force stopped using the term WAF and began referring to both men and women as “Airmen”. The Airman Heritage Museum is more than just a building that contains objects frozen in time. It includes a portion of the history and heritage that helped create the organization we identify as the United States Air Force. We have produced "Awoken Memoirs; stories of the Airman Heritage Museum," consisting of six episodes, to focus on its legacy.

Artifacts from the Women in the Air Force gallery are displayed in the USAF Airman Heritage Training Complex, Aug. 10, 2020 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The Airman Heritage Museum collects, researches, preserves, interprets and presents the USAF Enlisted Corps history, heritage, and traditions to develop Airmen today and for tomorrow.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Sarayuth Pinthong)

The WAF gallery consists of mannequins dressed in various WAF uniforms from the 40s through the 80s, photos and artifacts.

Artifacts from the Women in the Air Force gallery are displayed in the USAF Airman Heritage Training Complex, Aug. 10, 2020 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The Airman Heritage Museum collects, researches, preserves, interprets and presents the USAF Enlisted Corps history, heritage, and traditions to develop Airmen today and for tomorrow.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Sarayuth Pinthong)

The museum's primary mission is to educate our Airmen on the history of the Air Force with particular emphasis on JBSA-Lackland. The secondary purpose is to educate, train, inspire and serve as a recruiting tool for the numerous civilian visitors of the facility.

Artifacts from the Women in the Air Force gallery are displayed in the USAF Airman Heritage Training Complex, Aug. 10, 2020 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The Airman Heritage Museum collects, researches, preserves, interprets and presents the USAF Enlisted Corps history, heritage, and traditions to develop Airmen today and for tomorrow.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Sarayuth Pinthong)

The museum's primary mission is to educate our Airmen on the history of the Air Force with particular emphasis on JBSA-Lackland. The secondary purpose is to educate, train, inspire and serve as a recruiting tool for the numerous civilian visitors of the facility.

Artifacts from the Women in the Air Force (WAF) gallery are displayed for visitors to view in the USAF Airman Heritage Training Complex, Aug. 10, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

Artifacts from the Women in the Air Force (WAF) gallery are displayed for visitors to view in the USAF Airman Heritage Training Complex, Aug. 10, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

The WAF gallery consists of mannequins dressed in various WAF uniforms from the 40s through the 80s, photos and artifacts.

The WAF gallery consists of mannequins dressed in various WAF uniforms from the 40s through the 80s, photos and artifacts.

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --

In 1948, former President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integrated Act allowing women to serve directly in the military, which led to the formation of the Women in the Air Force program.

All members of the WAF completed basic military training here at formerly known Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

Two retired chief master sergeants shared their experiences and proudest moments while serving as women in the Air Force. These are their stories.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Dale Armwood

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Dale Armwood served in the Air Force for more than 26 years. She experienced what it was like to be part of the WAF and transitioned into an Airman after the Air Force stopped using the term WAF in the mid-1970s.

Serving from April 1963 to October 1989, she worked as a pharmacy technician, an educator for leadership and management and as a military training instructor at Lackland.

Though her plan was to only serve four years, Armwood became passionate about her job as an educator and decided to stay in service as long as she could. She became the first woman to teach at the then Strategic Air Command Academy at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

“That was the best thing that happened to me because I love teaching,” Armwood said. “I can’t imagine that they even paid me to do it … I learned probably more than the students I was teaching.”

She said with regard to the issued uniforms, it felt like women were joining a man’s Air Force.

“It was like they didn’t make women’s uniforms,” Armwood said. “They just took a man’s uniform and cut it down or did something to it to make it fit women. It was obvious that we were an afterthought when it came to dressing us in the Air Force.”

She said she didn’t think the Air Force was ready for the WAF; however, she believed women’s resiliency and capability to improvise helped them become successful Airmen as they represented the country in uniform.

“They just sort of threw us in there and made do,” she said. “It was kind of obvious that they weren’t ready.”

Serving in the 1960s, Armwood was subject to sex and racial discrimination.

“Not only was I a woman, I was a Black woman,” she said. “So when you didn’t get promoted or you didn’t get the job you wanted, you couldn’t decide – is it because I’m female or is it because I’m Black?”

Admitting she had to work twice as hard, Armwood said her proudest moment as a woman in the Air Force was ending her career as a chief master sergeant. She knew she became part of the 1 percent of the force.

“I used to say I’m the highest-paid streetwalker here at Lackland,” Armwood said.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Bonnie Cooper

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Bonnie Cooper completed 15 different assignments from October 1962 to October 1992 in the medical field. She tackled her military career with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach. The path she chose allowed her to break through many barriers in the Air Force that were restricted due to gender.

Cooper recalled the beginning of her journey at the San Antonio International Airport.

“They had a huge room filled with men sitting in their chairs, sitting at attention,” Cooper said. “I was the only female, so the sergeant that was in charge told me I didn’t have to sit in those chairs with all the guys.”

She said that was the only special treatment she received during her time in basic military training at Lackland.

Cooper took on a leadership role during her time in basic military training. Having had real-world experiences before her military career, it enabled her to act as a mentor to her wingmen.

“I had been living on my own for three years before I joined the Air Force and I learned pretty much how to deal with other people no matter what their gender was,” she said.

Some of Cooper’s peers seemed to be less enthusiastic about putting forth the effort to learn and excel.

“We had some girls that didn’t really want to learn how to iron,” Cooper said. “You’d start showing them something and they’d just walk away, and those girls ended up being washed back.”

However, those who were willing to succeed, could.

“We had ladies who didn’t know how to wash clothes, didn’t know how to iron and so those of us that knew those things taught them how,” she said.

After completing basic military training, Cooper continued to take the initiative and set the example in her career field.

“I worked in intensive care and it was a 36-bed unit,” Cooper said. “Because it was such a stressful unit, the male technicians did not want female technicians working on the floor. If you let them, they would leave all the cleaning to you. I just told them, ‘no, you used it on your patient, you clean it up,’ and the supervisors agreed. If you didn't speak up peer-to-peer, they'd try to take advantage.”

Although she saw discrimination from her male peers, she found that in terms of leadership, she was respected despite her gender.

“I was given my duty assignment and the men were given theirs,” Cooper said. “The men took on the cleaning duties as much as we did, and we took on the patient care duties as much as they did. As far as the duty squadron is concerned, I had no problems.”

She remembered an instance where she was able to take advantage of an opportunity due to her male counterpart not wanting to go on a temporary duty, or TDY, in order to stay home with his family. This gave Cooper a shot at being one of the first females to complete the schooling few females had done before her. She put her career first and explained that it’s part of the job.

“A lot of people would say, ‘no, I don't want to go TDY for five months,’” Cooper said. “Don't expect it to be a 9-to-5 job. You're on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you have to be willing to put your job ahead of all else. And if you're not, then you don't need to be in the military.”

Cooper believes military service does not recognize gender.

“You just got to take advantage of the learning opportunities you're given and don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it, but don't use gender as an excuse,” Cooper said.

A Women in the Air Force display is available for viewing at the USAF Airman Heritage Museum & Enlisted Character Development Center at JBSA-Lackland. More information about the museum may be found at www.airmenheritage.com. To schedule a tour or make an appointment to view the archival collections, contact the museum at 210-671-3055 or aetc.ho.ol-ho@us.af.mil.