Women’s History Month: Lori Johnson-Vegas makes giving back her life mission

  • Published
  • By Brandice J. O'Brien
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Every time Lori Johnson-Vegas leaves her home on Brown Drive, the message is clear -- "Give yourself back to the world each day." The quote is painted above the door in her foyer and the woman known as the "Air Force Mommy" obliges, wearing an infectious smile and her signature butterfly jewelry.

Ms. Johnson-Vegas, a Tinker resident since 2010 and lifelong Air Force advocate, is involved in many on-base and community-related organizations. She's been nominated for The Pennsylvania State University 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award. She recently learned she has been awarded the Penn State Achieving Woman of the Year award and will venture to Pennsylvania in April for the award ceremony.

While the extent of her contributions comes natural to her, it continually impresses those around her, including her husband, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Command Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Vegas.

"How does one person find time to manage being a loving mother, dedicated military spouse, Ph.D. student, active community volunteer and council advisor all in 24 hours?" he asked. "Lori's selfless commitment to others is amazing and truly deserving of special recognition. She doesn't ask for or seek recognition. Her motives are honorable and she does things with a genuine care for others, especially military spouses and their families."

Though many often wonder how she can give so much, Ms. Johnson-Vegas doesn't question it; it's just part of her character, one that has defined and tested her through the years. She's ultimately persevered collecting numerous accolades and honors, but it can be said adversities she faced in high school as an Air Force daughter and college as a student pursuing her dream helped define who she is today.

Ms. Johnson-Vegas' first significant challenge came during her junior year of high school in Portsmouth, N.H.

Her father, a chief master sergeant, received orders to Lajes Field in the Azores, Portugal. Though moving periodically was nothing new to the Johnson family, this time it was different. Ms. Johnson-Vegas would soon be a senior in high school and wanted to spend that last year with the friends she'd had since freshman year. She wanted to remain a part of the school community and continue participating in the endless list of athletics and activities. Her parents sympathized.

The Johnsons made arrangements for Ms. Johnson-Vegas to stay behind with the family of one of her friends and graduate from the Portsmouth school. It was a plan set in stone, until it wasn't. Two weeks before for the family left New Hampshire, Mrs. Johnson couldn't bear the thought of leaving her oldest child behind.

"I was like 'What? You can't do this!' I was a typical teenager," Ms. Johnson-Vegas said. "It was horrible, one of the most painful times of my life."

Despite Ms. Johnson-Vegas' pleas, rationalizing and a petition signed by her classmates, she left New Hampshire with her family and spent her senior year in Portugal. Mrs. Johnson appreciated her daughter's sacrifice and Ms. Johnson-Vegas achieved the similar feats and titles in her new school. Additionally, she wasn't forgotten stateside; her New Hampshire high school kept her school and state track records displayed (to this day)and still considered her a part of their graduating class.

Ms. Johnson-Vegas returned to the United States the following year as part of Penn State's freshman class. She studied Communications with a minor in Journalism. An avid sports fan, she hoped to become a sports broadcaster. It wasn't meant to be.

"During those times, sports' broadcasting was not friendly to women or minorities. The timing wasn't right," she said. "Now, of course we see lots of women on the sidelines and in the locker rooms. It was a little obstacle."

But, not the end of the world; there were other opportunities awaiting Ms. Johnson-Vegas. Opportunities she might not have realized had she become a sports journalist.
Following graduation, she worked as a regional trainer for a retail organization and soon enrolled in Wilmington University, Del., to pursue a Master of Science Degree in Human Resources.

Just one year after relocating to Delaware, Ms. Johnson-Vegas met Airman Kevin Vegas who was at his first assignment at Dover Air Force Base.

"It was a hot pursuit; he wouldn't leave me alone," Ms. Johnson-Vegas said, "even though I did stand him up on our first date. I felt horrible and it was not intentional, but he never lets me live it down."

Roughly a month later, Ms. Johnson-Vegas saw the Airman and he asked her out again. Their official first date was St. Patrick's Day. She took him to a work party and he took her bowling. Unbeknownst to him, Ms. Johnson-Vegas knew the game and was quite good.
For each game the couple played, he offered a bet, which only led to more games and more dates. He became a permanent fixture on her calendar. Neither of the two minded.
They eventually married and have sons Lance, now 28, and Justin, 23.

When Ms. Johnson-Vegas graduated from Wilmington University, she worked in the human resources department at Citicorp.

"When I chose to study human resources, I was at a point in my life when I really started to understand my purpose," Ms. Johnson-Vegas said.

During one of her certification processes, Ms. Johnson-Vegas was asked to write her own personal mission or purpose statement.

"It was an amazing exercise for anybody to go through. I recommend it to all," she said. "You really get to look at your strengths and areas of opportunities and really define your purpose. It was a week-long process."

When she was finished, her statement did not mention sports' broadcasting. It read, "Make a positive difference in the lives of others on a daily basis."

After realizing her identity and learning several life lessons, Ms. Johnson-Vegas was put in a position similar to one she faced as a teenager. In June 2005, Chief Vegas, who had just made chief master sergeant, received orders to relocate to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Situated in Tampa, Fla., the family was devastated by the news. Ms. Johnson-Vegas had been recruited by Penn State to head a new department in the Outreach organization; Justin was a junior in high school and Lance, a student at his mother's alma mater.

After much family discussion, reflection and prayer, Ms. Johnson-Vegas relocated with her youngest son to Pennsylvania while Chief Vegas went on to Germany alone. It was a difficult decision, but one that time and experience helped her make.

Ms. Johnson-Vegas continues to sacrifice herself and help others on a daily basis, particularly to Airmen, their spouses and the surrounding community.

"My father may have raised his right hand to take an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States, but my mother did the same by extending her left hand when she took a vow to marry my father," wrote Justin Johnson-Vegas in the Penn State 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award nomination packet. "She has been an amazing supporter of my father and been by his side his entire Air Force career. She has endured raising my brother and me alone on many occasions because of my father being called to serve and defend our country away from us. During those times and even now, she never wavered in her commitment to help others."

Suhail Gabr, wife of Staff Sgt. Adam Gabr of the 72nd Security Forces Squadron, said she is appreciative of Ms. Johnson-Vegas' efforts.

"Lori has contributed so many things to Tinker, but not only to different programs, but mainly to 'the people:' Airmen and their families," Ms. Gabr said. "She helped restructure the spouse group, now called the Tinker Enlisted Spouses Network, she created Tinkerbell's Wardrobe, she volunteers for many activities throughout the base, and she represents Tinker with dignity and pride. Her planner is always full of wonderful and very-much needed meetings, activities, dinners, lunches and one-on-ones with spouses that need her."

In addition to fulfilling her patriotic duty, Ms. Johnson-Vegas also pursues outside dreams. In September 2008, she started her own business, The Nerve, in which she is a professional and personal life coach. She is also in the final stages of completing her doctorate in human resources from Penn State and writing her first book, which she assures, will be a No. 1 best seller.

"It can all be done," Ms. Johnson-Vegas said. "Set goals for yourself and just do what you know is right for you and your family. When you have a desire or passion and you believe in it, you can make things happen. Just have a little patience."