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Bomber and NC3 operators speak on leadership opportunities in the Mighty Eighth

  • Published
  • By Justin Oakes
  • 8th Air Force and J-GSOC Public Affairs

(Editor’s note: the following feature consists of interviews with four female operational leaders within the Air Force’s bomber and nuclear command, control and communications communities)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. – For several years now the Air Force has advanced the Diversity and Inclusion initiative set forth by the Secretary of Defense in hopes of creating a more balanced, capable and lethal force.

Historically speaking, operationally-based career fields such as pilots, navigators, cyber operations, missile operations and intelligence, especially lack in diversity -- leaving aspiring young minority leaders to question available opportunities.

“I would like all Airmen to know that there are a variety of leadership opportunities that exist within the bomber and nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) arenas,” said Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara, 8th Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander. “Eighth Air Force and Air Force Global Strike Command has taken an active approach when it comes to rebalancing our force and empowering those that have the talent and drive to succeed. For instance, we have four female operational leaders within The Mighty Eighth and J-GSOC, all of which whom have different backgrounds and have taken a different path to their current roles.”

Col. Bridget McNamara – 8th Air Force Vice Commander

McNamara, whose career spans 26 years in the Air Force, hails from Columbus, Ohio and is a B-1 pilot by trade. The daughter of an Army officer, her route to becoming a bomber pilot began in the ROTC program at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a biology degree and her commission. Upon entering Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, also known as ENJJPT, McNamara set her sights on the bomber world.

As a B-1 pilot, McNamara has held a variety of leadership positions, to include being a unit deployment manager; life support officer; chief of squadron scheduling, training, and weapons and tactics, both stateside and deployed; and being an assistant director of operations at the USAF Weapons School.  

“I had great growth opportunities and for the most part I followed all the traditional ‘necessary steps’ for an aviator’s path – until I didn’t,” said McNamara.

In 2008, while serving as the ADO at the Weapons School, McNamara received a medical diagnosis that would take her from the B-1 cockpit permanently. However, that did not mean an end to her career.

“Not being able to fly due to medical reasons prompted a new path and required me to forge what I call my second career inside the Air Force,” said McNamara. “I was able to leverage my operational and instructional experience to serve in leadership roles as a legislative liaison at air staff and later for U.S. Central Command, and to serve as a squadron commander at Air University, an Air Base Group commander in the United Kingdom, and as the Director of the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center for both AFGSC and U.S. Strategic Command,” said the 8th Air Force vice commander, who now helps lead more than 21,000 Airmen across five Bomb Wings and one Command and Control Group.

McNamara recalled flying airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2001 and the “shock and awe” night of Operation Iraqi Freedom as some of the most formative events during her early tenure as a B-1 aviator.

“The opportunities for females and other less represented Airmen are here in the bomber community, however, it does require a certain level of advocacy and mentorship to realize them,” said McNamara. “My advice for aspiring young leaders is to be yourself, learn your job, do it well…and care for others in the process. My request for those in positions of power and influence -- acknowledge potential and excellence, especially in those who are different than you, and at the very least, help remove obstacles to their success.”

Lt. Col. Allison Minnig – 595th Strategic Communications Squadron Commander

The Hicksville, Ohio native and 16-yr Air Force veteran is another leader within the nuclear enterprise. Minnig’s military service began in ROTC while earning a BA in Aeronautical Technology from Purdue University, which ultimately landed her a career as a Cyber Operations Officer (formerly known as a communications officer). 

Her military journey has included positions such as being an executive officer within the Air Force NC3 Center, Field Training Unit Flight Commander at HQ Air Force ROTC at Maxwell AFB and the 1st ACCS Communication assistant director of operations aboard the E-4B aircraft (one of the few flying assignments a cyber operations officer can have).

“When I first entered, there weren’t a lot of females within the science technology engineering and math (STEM) fields, but that has slowly changed over time,” said Minnig. “It’s about getting the right people interested in doing that type of work and letting them know there are opportunities out there in the cyber realm.”

Cyber operations officers focus on offensive and defensive capabilities for the Air Force’s networks, one such example is Mission Defense Teams. Currently Minnig leads a team focused on NC3 communications that deals with the E-4B NAOC and the Strategic Automated Command Control System, a system that is transitioning to internet protocol format; one-sixth of the 595th SCS’s Mission Defense Team is female.

“Opportunities are the same for everybody as a cyber operations officer,” said Minnig. “You get to work with cutting edge computer technology, exposure to working with computer programing languages to protect networks and can even get experience in nontraditional fields such as working on the E-4B or NC3 systems. Also, in this career field a cyber operations officer can go pretty much anywhere.”

Lt. Col. Kristen Jenkins – 28th Bomb Squadron Commander

Jenkins is a B-1 pilot from Klamath Falls, Oregon, who started her 17-year Air Force career by enlisting in the Air National Guard then later commissioning through Oregon State ROTC.

As a bomber aviator, Jenkins did mention that women were not allowed to fly combat missions until the mid-1990s, something she is glad that changed.

“In combat airframes we have more responsibility at a much younger age,” said Jenkins. “I’ve had three deployments to CENTCOM and as an aircraft commander, you have to make determinations of what you can and can’t do that can have a significant operational impact.”

Jenkins has filled many roles in her nearly two decades of experience to include being a flying training unit commander, bomb squadron director of operations, mission commander, an instructor pilot and even participated in the first bomber task force mission to Norway in February of 2021.

However, when asked what she is most proud of, it is the ability to balance work and family life.

“I am dual military and my husband is also a squadron commander on base, and we have three kids,” said Jenkins. “It’s no small feat to be an operator and fulfill your family obligations, but it is doable. You don’t have to choose between excelling at your craft and starting a family – I hope the younger generation sees that.”

Lt. Col. Vanessa Wilcox – 96th Bomb Squadron Commander

Wilcox is a Dayton, Ohio native who began her 17-year Air Force career by attending Ohio University and the ROTC program. Her motivation was her father, an Air Force veteran and B-52 maintainer, which later prompted her to become a B-52 navigator.

“I had a very nontraditional career path,” said Wilcox.

She’s held leadership roles as the wing public affairs officer, mission support group deputy and even within the acquisition world. Wilcox has been at Barksdale AFB since 2006 and joked she has worked in almost every building on base to include working within the 11th Bomb Squadron Formal Training Unit and as the director of operations within the 20th BS.

Not to mention Wilcox is the first female B-52 bomb squadron commander the Air Force has ever seen.

“Coming into the squadron I instantly felt tied to the unit, and it changes your perspective,” said Wilcox. “It’s something you really get through operational positions. It makes people feel they are part of something bigger.”

When asked about the Air Force’s diversity and inclusion initiative she didn’t hesitate.

“There are more opportunities for everybody in the bomber community,” said Wilcox. “Career broadening and opening the aperture for growth and development to leave and come back bringing new skills is more the norm today.”

And the Mighty Eighth will continue.

“We have some exemplary operational leaders within Eighth Air Force and the J-GSOC,” said Gebara. “We will continue to break barriers to ensure our bomber and NC3 communities have the best talent to sustain our future while remaining ready to fight tonight.”