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First female Russian linguist Chief paves way for future female Airmen

  • Published
  • By Matthew McGovern
  • 16 Air Force
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Susan Douglas’ story began 45 years ago when her Air force recruiter invited her to take a cryptologic linguist test after she excelled at her military entrance exams.

“I grew up watching World War II cryptographer type shows and thought the work would be fascinating,” Douglas said.

She qualified for the Russian cryptologic linguist school where she would learn how to decipher foreign communications and provide intelligence to commanders. She enlisted in April 1977 at the age of 19, and headed to basic training after her family bid her farewell from her hometown of Huntsville, Texas.

“As a young kid from rural Texas I wanted to see the world and was able to travel frequently for the command in various positions,” she said. “There weren’t many opportunities where I was from, and joining the Air Force was huge.”

Though she didn’t speak a word of Russian, she immersed herself in the 37-week course and was then assigned to the operations floor at 6912 Electronic Security Squadron, Berlin, where she began to develop her ambition.

“As a two-striped Airman, I realized the most important person in the cryptologic operations floor was the ops superintendent,” Douglas said. “To be the superintendent you had to be a chief, and my burning motivation was to be an operations superintendent.”

She kept the goal in mind as she developed from an entry-level Russian linguist to a team leader. She later progressed to a project manager before becoming a training superintendent while stationed at various locations in the U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom.

Although she evolved quickly into different linguist roles, she hit obstacles because of her gender.

“Things weren’t built for females at that time,” Douglas said.  “When I was working with NATO they needed to send Airmen to various locations and I would be the logical choice. The NATO officials would say they couldn’t accommodate women because remote locations sometimes had male-only lodging and bathrooms and the equipment wasn’t built for us.”

As Douglas progressed in her career, she helped drive modernization of the Air Force.

“Towards the middle of my career I’d get a call to try out a piece of equipment to make sure females could use it with our smaller stature,” she said. “In the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft depot they would ask me to sit, stand and do everything needed for the job to see if it was physically capable for women.”

After navigating these hurtles and helping to pave the way for other women, she shined as a training superintendent where she realized she was becoming competitive to reach her goal.

“There hadn’t been a female cryptologic linguist chief and eventually it was clear I might be the first,” she said. “It was the best day in my entire military life when I discovered I was on the list for chief.”

Douglas realized the operations superintendent role came with great responsibility and the cryptologic units consisted of 500 to 700 military and civilians.

“You just knew that you better mind your Ps and Qs because if you were going to open that door you had to open it wide enough for other women to follow you through it,” she said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to be good at what I did and to try not to make mistakes. I probably worked harder than anybody else expected me to because I was operating to my own standard.”

Douglas said she had some push back from leadership to fill higher status roles after sitting in the operations superintendent seat for a while.

“You could do what people say you should do but you really have to follow your passion,” she said. “If doing really great work is your goal you have to know yourself well enough to know what will get you out of bed every morning.”

She retired doing her favorite job in 1999 as an operations superintendent at Royal Air Force Menwith Hill Station, United Kingdom.  

On the road to becoming chief, she was equally passionate as a training superintendent at the Air Intelligence Command at Security Hill, San Antonio, Texas. The AIC was two iterations of command before the 25th Air Force, which eventually merged into the 16th Air Force.

Today, the 16th Air Force has women working in virtually every department, bringing expertise to Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance as well as the cyber and information warfare community. In 2017, 19.8 percent of Airmen were women; that number increased to 21.3 percent in 2021. This number has more than doubled since Douglas enlisted in 1977.

Paving the way for women in the Air Force wasn’t the end of her story. After retirement, she became a chaplain where she worked as a wellness director and spiritual care professional.

“I was very drawn to helping others, and I felt like I was meant to do it,” Douglas said. “So I packed off to the Episcopalian seminary in Austin, Texas, and received my degree and clinical pastoral education at the Baptist Health System in San Antonio and have been working as a chaplain ever since.”

She’s had similar extraordinary affects as a chaplain as she did in her military career.

“Susan is someone young and old can trust,” said Melissa Baumholtz, a Saint Mary’s Hall school nurse. “Her spiritual guidance has helped me personally in so many ways. She is an amazingly thoughtful, gracious chaplain who many people admire and respect.”