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Col. Kimberly Toney, 31st Mission Support Group commander, leads the 31st Communications Squadron during a combat fitness run at Aviano Air Base, Italy, in November.
Col. Kimberly Toney, 31st Mission Support Group commander, leads the 31st Communications Squadron during a combat fitness run at Aviano Air Base, Italy, in November. (Michael Holzworth / Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – When the commander of the 31st Fighter Wing calls his senior leaders together, he can’t be accused of convening a meeting of the old boys club.

Two of the four group commanders at Aviano are women. Two of the four deputy group commanders are women. And the top enlisted airman? Chief Master Sgt. Pamela Lane.

“It never even crossed my mind,” Brig. Gen. Robert Yates said of the number of women in leadership positions around the base. “But I guess it’s true.”

In fact, it’s likely there are more women in senior leadership positions at Aviano today than there ever have been. In addition to the five women mentioned above, three more command squadrons. And Yates’ director of staff is also female.

“I definitely think this is the future,” said Maj. Christine Erlewine, who commands the 724th Air Mobility Squadron. “We’re going to see this more and more [around the Air Force].”

Col. Kimberly Toney, commander of the 31st Mission Support Group, said there are women in various leadership positions at other U.S. Air Forces in Europe bases. But there might not be so many together in one place.

“It’s just circumstances,” Lane said with a shoulder shrug. “When we all leave here, who knows who’ll replace us?”

The women interviewed for this story appear to be of two minds: proud that so many of their female peers have achieved success, yet concerned that the subject is still a legitimate one for an article.

“I would hope we would get to the point where it wasn’t very newsworthy and not a big deal,” said Maj. Laurie Conrad, commander of the 31st Maintenance Operations Squadron.

“I don’t want to be highlighted as a woman,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Spears, commander of the 603rd Air Control Squadron, who thinks that female war casualties tend to draw more attention than their male counterparts. “I don’t think I should be.”

“Does it change the dynamics [around base]?” asked Lt. Col. Suzanne Kumashiro, deputy commander of the 31st Mission Support Group. “I don’t really think so. Gender, race, religion should be immaterial.”

Yates said there’s no quota system at work.

“The primary determination [for all leaders] is: ‘Can they get the job done?’ That’s really the only concern,” he said.

Yet Yates won’t be replaced by a woman as wing commander. All nine commanders at Aviano since the wing activated have been fighter pilots. And that’s an area where women are still underrepresented in the Air Force.

According to figures supplied by the Air Force Personnel Center, only 63 of almost 3,300 fighter pilots in the Air Force are female. There aren’t any female pilots currently at Aviano, though both the 555th and 510th fighter squadrons have had female pilots in recent years.

Most female fighter pilots are company-grade officers. Only six are majors. Three are lieutenant colonels.

One of those, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, has been recently selected for promotion to colonel. So she would be at least another assignment away from commanding a fighter wing.

Yates said the situation has to be put into context, though. He was a member of the Air Force Academy’s graduating class of 1981. That was only the second year that saw females graduate from the academy. And people aren’t promoted overnight.

“To get this job, there are at least three factors,” he said. “You have to have ability, you have to have luck and then there’s timing.”

“I don’t think that’s a concern,” Conrad said of a woman eventually becoming a fighter wing commander. “It’ll just take time.”

“I think it’s just doors opening and the right person coming through,” Spears said.

All of the women interviewed said they feel they get the respect they deserve from their peers and subordinates. Toney said airmen don’t bat an eye when she’s introduced at functions.

But that’s not always the case when she ventures out the gates for Italian gatherings.

“They do double takes and triple takes and stare,” she said, smiling.

That’s also the case with the local residents when she goes downrange.

“They do not want to talk to you,” Erlewine said. “They want to talk to the man standing behind you.”

But not too long ago, the culture wasn’t that much different in the American military.

Lane remembers a meeting with a chief master sergeant early in her career.

“His first words were: ‘Women don’t belong on the flight line,’” she said.

“It made me mad. And more and more determined to do well. I always felt I had two strikes against me and I had to work twice as hard.”

While acknowledging they serve as role models for future female leaders, Toney and the others said they don’t spend more time mentoring female subordinates than male ones.

“If we aren’t equal with everyone, we’re continuing what we strove to do away with,” she said.

And they don’t spend a lot of time networking with one another.

“I wouldn’t want all the men to get together by themselves,” Erlewine said. “I’d want to be there, too.”

Lane said despite having advanced through a system once dominated by men, she hasn’t changed who she is. Or what she is.

“I am still a woman,” she said. “I am female. If I bring some feminine attributes, that’s just a part of the package.”

Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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