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Women's History Month:Maintainers take pride in their career field

After climbing 30 feet off the ground during a windy day on the aircraft ramp, 5-foot 4-inch tall Tech. Sgt. Lissette Malek tucks herself inside a 30-foot-wide E-3 Sentry rotodome and sets to work ensuring no safety concerns after any rotodome radar maintenance is done. The seven-level inspector, second only to a chief master sergeant nine-level, is a radar technician in the 552nd Maintenance Squadron.  Each AWACS jet is her concern and she’ll go from dome to lower lobe areas to ensure a safe flight. (Air Force photos by Margo Wright)

After climbing 30 feet off the ground during a windy day on the aircraft ramp, 5-foot 4-inch tall Tech. Sgt. Lissette Malek tucks herself inside a 30-foot-wide E-3 Sentry rotodome and sets to work ensuring no safety concerns after any rotodome radar maintenance is done. The seven-level inspector, second only to a chief master sergeant nine-level, is a radar technician in the 552nd Maintenance Squadron. Each AWACS jet is her concern and she’ll go from dome to lower lobe areas to ensure a safe flight. (Air Force photos by Margo Wright)

Senior Airman Kelsey Kane is an electronics warfare technician with the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron used to doing her work in all weather conditions of the E-3 Sentry ramp area at Tinker.  To check connectors of a line replaceable unit, she will remove a panel under the nose of the jet. Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Senior Airman Kelsey Kane is an electronics warfare technician with the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron used to doing her work in all weather conditions of the E-3 Sentry ramp area at Tinker. To check connectors of a line replaceable unit, she will remove a panel under the nose of the jet. Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Juggling in- and out-processing, leave paperwork and reviewing enlisted personnel reports is a typical day for Senior Airman Valerie Davis. She is in the Knowledge Operations Management of the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander’s Support Section and enjoys working in the busy office. Nearby are staff sergeant stripes that Airman Davis can officially sew onto her uniform in a few months. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Juggling in- and out-processing, leave paperwork and reviewing enlisted personnel reports is a typical day for Senior Airman Valerie Davis. She is in the Knowledge Operations Management of the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander’s Support Section and enjoys working in the busy office. Nearby are staff sergeant stripes that Airman Davis can officially sew onto her uniform in a few months. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "See us as 'maintainers', not 'women maintainers' or 'men maintainers,'" said Tech. Sgt. Lissette Malek, 552nd Maintenance Squadron Airborne Surveillance Radar Maintenance technician, who is also a wife, mother and student pursing a bachelor's degree. She's been in the maintenance career field for 13 years. "All maintainers have the same challenges whether it's the E-3 Sentry or another airframe or some other specialty."

Maintenance is a challenging career field with long and unpredictable hours and a gamut of responsibilities, from aircraft repairs to meticulous documentation. Though most maintainers are men, the women of the 552nd Maintenance Group insist the career field is not gender-specific and they take pride in being a part of the team.

"When I began my maintenance career in 1990, my first commander was a woman, and so was the master sergeant who taught me how to run a flight line, so I have never known a maintenance community without women contributing and leading at every level," said Col. Stella Smith, 552nd MXG commander. "In 23 years, home station and deployed, maintainers judge a person's value to the team not by gender but by how well they do the job."

Off-duty, women in the maintenance field are wives, mothers and college students with an array of interests and hobbies from an assortment of backgrounds. But, when they're on the job, the women of the maintenance group said nothing is more important than executing the mission.

"It takes all of us; we're a flying command post," said Staff Sgt. Anna Jones, 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron specialist expeditor who assigns Airmen to work on various aircraft. She has worked in maintenance for almost five years and is also pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree in English. "I love watching aircraft launch and getting them greened up to fly."

Master Sgt. Brenda Dillard, the daughter of a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said as she grew up, her father told her he didn't want his daughter, a young lady, fixing cars. Yet, her mother, a retired Air Force technical sergeant encouraged her to do "the things girls can't." She obliged both her parents' wishes and chose to fix aircraft instead. In her 16-and-a-half-year career, the psychology student and mother of four, she said she's worked an array of positions from turning wrenches and leading a shop to overseeing programs and credits her mother as her inspiration.

"I did not want a desk job. I wanted nothing to do with pushing paper," said Sergeant Dillard, 552nd AMXS Programs noncommissioned officer-in-charge. "I love what I do. For all the dings and dents, it's completely worth it and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

"Maintenance is family," Sergeant Dillard said. "Even though we, as women, did not create the maintenance family; we've definitely come to be included in it. I wouldn't and couldn't be who and where I am without all of them, regardless of gender."

Lt. Col. Kelley "KC" Stevens said she realized her love for the field as second lieutenant. The daughter of retired lieutenant colonel pilot, she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps. But, when that door closed, she chose maintenance, and has never regretted it.

"I wanted to lead people. I knew as an officer, I would have lots of paperwork no matter what job I took and there are very few career fields where you get to lead as many people as you do in maintenance," said Colonel Stevens, 552nd AMXS commander who has worked in maintenance for 15-and-a-half-years. "It's one of the best decisions I ever made. I think things happen for a reason and I have enjoyed the challenges and opportunities of aircraft maintenance. I am blessed to have a career I love and work with some of the most hard working, dedicated professionals in the Air Force."

Despite their love for the field, many of the women have faced adversity as some of their peers don't think women should have the authority to lead or are too dainty to perform the tasks required of them. But, Sergeant Dillard said that will change. It's just a matter of time.

"What you know of any group of people is what you've experienced. The opportunity with females, being a smaller percentage, is less and it carries more weight," she said. "But, because we work so close, it's understood very quickly that each individual is different from the next. And, you have to get to know that individual to truly know anybody."

Staff Sgt. Crystal Albritton, and Senior Airmen Kelsey Kane and Valerie Davis, may be the right kind of change. Each day, the women come to work determined to make a difference.

"Males and females can pretty much, 95 percent of the time, do the same the jobs and should be treated equally," Airman Kane said. She is an electronic warfare technician for the 552nd AMXS and has been in maintenance for two years. Away from work, she is pursuing a bachelor's degree in accounting. "I'm helping women cross that barrier."
Airman Kane can be found around aircraft, while Airman Davis and Sergeant Albritton work behind the scenes processing maintainers' paperwork and scheduling flying rotations.

"If I don't get their paperwork done, the troops are constantly going to be worried and they're not going to be focused on their actual job," said Airman Davis, a 552nd AMXS Knowledge Operations Management journeyman. She is married and pursing an Associate Applied Science Community College of the Air Force degree. "By making sure I do my job, they don't make mistakes and nothing goes wrong on the jet when it gets ready to go in the air. If there is a problem, all that trickles down and falls back on me."
Sergeant Albritton agreed.

"At the end of the day, I'm contributing to producing safe and reliable aircraft. Just because I'm not turning wrenches, it's still my job to make sure that aircraft are not grounded and can fly," said Sergeant Albritton, 552nd Maintenance Operations Squadron scheduler. She has worked in maintenance for 10 years. Married with two children, she is also pursuing a general Community College of the Air Force degree.