An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

459th MSG Commander shares inspiring story for Women's History Month

  • Published
  • By Col. Vianesa Vargas
  • 459th Air Refueling Wing
As we commemorate Women's History Month, it is fitting to spotlight remarkable women who defied societal norms of their time and shattered barriers in pursuing military ambitions. There is the story of the U.S. Army soldier, Cathay Williams, the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Then there is U.S. Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general. And there is Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass, the first female Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Through their extraordinary stories, we glimpse not only the struggles faced by women in traditionally male-dominated fields but also the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
But once we commemorate “the firsts,” where do we go from here? How do I, a senior leader build and continue the work for the future? We continue the work of forging resilience, leading with purpose, and trailblazing for the next generation. We also tell stories of our own journey. 
Here is how I broke ground and continue to chart my own course forward.
Overcoming Obstacles
I was a captain on my third deployment, sitting in Kuwait. As I gathered my things to speak with the airfield manager, a Kuwaiti man, about increasing cargo throughput at our location, my NCOIC arrived to tell me he would accompany me to the meeting. "Why?" I asked. It was an odd statement, as he was coming off nightshift and would miss his surrey van back to quarters by attending a meeting in another two hours. "His staff said he doesn't speak with women. I must go with you." My heart sank, and I got the familiar bad taste in my mouth. That was the second time in my career that I had to have one of my junior Airmen negotiate logistical requirements because of cultural barriers for women. This time, I wasn't forced to wear a Hijab like my previous deployment.
What followed was one of the worst instances of sexism and audacity in my life. There I was, a highly competent, educated, and experienced junior officer—who happened to be female—reduced to someone who would do better if I showed more leg and smiled a bit more (his exact words). My NCOIC was embarrassed for me and profusely apologized after the meeting that I had to experience such treatment. I told him it wasn't his fault. I took it on the chin and kept my eyes on the mission. I didn't share this story with my deployed boss or anyone else, as there wasn't time to concentrate on my mistreatment. That night, I thought long and hard about whether the Air Force was for me.
Upon returning to base for my redeployment, I told my commander that there needed to be more cultural awareness training, as no one prepared me. Perhaps because the Air Force did what it was supposed to do; see everyone as Airmen—we’re all blue. I agree with this statement in my heart. Still, more awareness is required to create a thriving organization. It's not that one prevents a female officer from deploying to areas rife with sexism from other cultures—it's about giving cultural education and training in how to navigate those waters. I was only a junior captain, after all. Thank goodness I decided to continue to lead with purpose.
And its experiences such as these that I remain transparent with those under my command and share experiences while emphasizing professional competence at every level. All leaders need to see what is possible. Female leaders must see—immediately how their unique perspective enhances the readiness and strength of military units. 
Power of Female Leadership
The impact of female leadership cannot be overstated enough. Women not only bring precision to strategy but also empathy and order to chaotic and uncertain environments. In my previous assignment at the United States Transportation Command, I had the privilege of observing the leadership of four female general officers. Their styles were markedly different from leadership styles I was used to. For one, they asked more questions and provided more thorough feedback. All four were also brilliant strategists.
Interestingly, all four of these generals took an interest in me as a colonel. When I decided to command, two of them mentored and coached me for the next level. Their advice and perspective as graduated group and wing commanders helped me navigate from the Joint world and back into the Air Force with little downtime. I am forever grateful to them. My current staff is almost all female, and we often brainstorm how to improve the Air Force for the next generation. For everyone, of course, but a few on my staff are also interested in specifically mentoring women.
Mentorship and Advocacy
To support women’s advancement in the military, we must deal with the three "elephants" in the room: childcare, family support, and wellness. These things cannot be an afterthought. Women tend to be caretakers. This is not only for their children; as they ascend the ranks, they will most likely find themselves caring for older parents. Although progress has been made in these areas, there is still work to be done. Uniforms, body armor, and fitness standards are all areas that still constitute blind spots in how we fully include women.
Additionally, women should seek jobs and positions that maximize their talents and potential throughout their careers. The Air Force offers many opportunities for this, so I continue to serve. I've off-ramped from Active Duty for entrepreneurial pursuits, on-ramped to the Reserves, and then on-ramped to a career in civil service. Now, I'm on-ramped to the Active Guard Reserve (AGR). As an AGR and senior leader, I'm an advocate for female retention, which includes being a champion for menopause awareness—a project affecting mid-level and senior female servicewomen. Where the generation before me saw menopause as a taboo topic, I’ve forged ahead, as I’ve witnessed mid-level professional women struggle with chronic stress, leading to a myriad of future health issues. 
In closing this Women’s History Month, I ask you all to reflect on how we continue the work of the women who blazed trails before us. Cathay Williams, whose body was severely broken after years of marching as a Soldier, eventually died after suffering from neuralgia and diabetes. Her tragic tale makes us reflect on why reflection is important. Additionally, doing the work so we keep doors open for those coming behind us is paramount.