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Women's History Month: Maintainer reflects on service

Master Sgt. Katherine Wheelock, 403rd Maintenance Group engine manager, conducts an inventory verifying the serial number on a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft propeller Feb. 5, 2016, at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. Wheelock joined the Air Force in 1979, got out in 1986, and joined the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing in 1996 and became an Air Reserve Technician in 1998. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

Master Sgt. Katherine Wheelock, 403rd Maintenance Group engine manager, conducts an inventory verifying the serial number on a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft propeller Feb. 5, 2016, at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. Wheelock joined the Air Force in 1979, got out in 1986, and joined the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing in 1996 and became an Air Reserve Technician in 1998. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected as the United Kingdom's prime minister and 63 Americans were taken hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. It was the year Michael Jackson released his first solo album "Off the Wall," ESPN launched on cable television, a Sony Walkman cost $200, and a gallon of gas cost $0.86.

This is also the year that Master Sgt. Kathy Wheelock joined the Air Force.

March is Women's History Month and the theme this year is "Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government." Wheelock is one of many women in the 403rd Wing and Air Force Reserve accomplishing the mission daily, setting the example through their service.

When Wheelock joined the Air Force, she told her recruiter she wanted to do something fun and exciting.

"And, that's how I got into law enforcement," she said.

According to the Air Force Personnel Center, 19 percent of the Air Force is comprised of women. When Wheelock served in active duty during 1980s that figure was around 11 percent, according to a 1982 Military Manpower Task Force report.

"It was a challenge to enter a nearly-all male career field," she said. "It was hard to break into a man's world of law enforcement, so I had to prove myself; both as a female military member and as a law enforcement specialist."

She proved she could hold her own when it came to some 'interesting' situations, and she became known to be 'good cop.'

During her seven years of active duty service, Wheelock married a fellow law enforcement member, Keith Wheelock assigned to the K-9 section.

The couple was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, with two children and conflicting work schedules, she decided to separate from active duty in 1986.

"We were both worried about not getting a joint spouse assignment," she said. "I hated leaving the service, but had to do what was right for my family."

In 1995 her husband was stationed to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, as a K-9 law enforcement specialist and retired as a master sergeant in 2003.

"I missed serving; I loved wearing the uniform, and being part of the Air Force team," said Wheelock. "So, I was glad to get to come back and serve in the Air Force Reserve."

She joined the 403rd Maintenance Group in 1997, serving as an information manager in the commander's support staff. She was hired as an Air Reserve Technician in 2002, a full-time civil service employee who is required to serve as an Air Force reservist in the same unit. She quickly became the NCOIC of the commander support staff.

In 2010 she had an opportunity to progress in her career, so she retrained as an engine mechanic and was hired as an ART in the 403rd Propulsion Flight as the engine manager in the 403rd Maintenance Squadron.

She is responsible for tracking all the inspections for the C-130J Super Hercules engines and propellers on 20 aircraft assigned to the 403rd Wing, which entails 91 propellers and 83 engines. She tracks 1,760 serial controlled items that consist of over 3,500 inspections.

The aircraft has inspections that are due hourly, monthly and annually. She coordinates with the production superintendents, plans and scheduling personnel, and her boss, Senior Master Sgt. Eric H. Johnson III, to ensure the aircraft are available for their mission at all times.

Johnson, the 403rd Propulsion Flight chief, said the 403d MXG is lucky to have Wheelock.

The flight benefits from her experience as a security forces member, NCOIC of the CSS, and as an ART, he said.

"If Kathy can't figure it out she normally can point you in the right direction," he said. "The word 'no and never' are not in her vocabulary; it's always yes, and let's figure out a way to do it."

On a daily basis Wheelock spends most of her time tracking, managing and scheduling inspections, and other non-maintenance managerial duties that keep the unit running. However, she added, "If I had to do some wrench-turning, I could do that also since I am a fully qualified mechanic."

Wheelock loves her job and is proud to serve, she said, adding that one of her biggest career highlights was deploying in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and Joint Task Force Horn of Africa in 2009.

She wants her unit members to realize the important role they play in the accomplishing the mission, she said.

"Sometimes, some people in maintenance get caught up in the day-to-day tasks and don't see how we make a difference. I remind them that what they do is important to the big picture. I tell the mechanics to tell people I am a C-130J mechanic, and that the aircraft out there is my office."

Like many people, she has encountered challenges throughout her career, but, she said it's a good career option for women.

"It's seems like the military is still a man's world, so as women we need to take this challenge seriously, and we need to take pride in what we do and prove ourselves as valuable military members, because it is a rewarding career," she said.

After 25 years, Wheelock, has risen through the ranks and is a senior NCO and a leader in her group. She has earned several awards and decorations, various levels of Air Force recognition, and associates degrees in Information Resources Management and Aircraft Maintenance Technology from the Community College of the Air Force.

She attributes her success to her family, her father who retired from the Air Force and her two brothers that retired from the Army, and followed in their path.

"They were supportive of me joining the military," she said.

Her husband, their three children and two grandchildren are also very supportive of her career.

"Just the other day I thanked them for supporting me because some children are embarrassed that their mother wears 'combat boots,'" she said, joking. In a serious tone, she added, "My husband and children are proud of me and what I have accomplished."

Since 1979, some things have changed. Michael Jackson and Margaret Thatcher have passed away, ESPN is still on cable, gas is about $1.50, for now, not many people use a Walkman today, unless they really want to, and all combat jobs are now open to women. Some things have not changed. The U.S. Air Force remains ready to combat its enemies foreign and domestic, and Wheelock is still here to serve her country and mentor the next generation of Airmen.