SERVICEWOMEN WALK TIGHTROPE
They often find Air Force pits work against families
Maj. Bri Peterson and her husband, Grant, awaken before dawn on workdays to care for their young son before they head off in different directions from their New Braunfels home.
Bri, a T-1 instructor pilot, commutes to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, where she is the 12th Training Squadron’s staff director. Grant drives to a camera exchange store on San Pedro Avenue in San Antonio. Bri brings their toddler, 18-month-old Gavin, to an on-base day care center.
Bri’s career is on the rise, while Grant’s is in a holding pattern.
When Bri gets orders to move to a new base, Grant loses his job. He once was cut loose from a store in Mississippi because he took three weeks off for their honeymoon. Now she sees him about four hours a day during the week — and her son less than that.
They get one day a week together — Sunday.
Their routine reflects the type of stressful lifestyle that is causing an exodus of women from the Air Force, which is trying a range of solutions to reduce the attrition. A Rand Corp. study found women leave the service earlier than men because of conflicts that tear at their families and personal lives.
The loss of skill and experience is a concern for the Air Force, where one in every five airmen is female.
The study found a significant drop-off in the number of women serving as the years pass. Twenty percent of second lieutenants are women, but many leave the service before they can advance up the ladder, re-
ducing their ranks to only around 14 percent of the lieutenant colonels and colonels. About half of that number will make one-star general, meaning that nine in every 10 general officers will be men.
Furthermore, half of all male officers serving in nonflying jobs remain in the Air Force through 10 years, while 37 percent of women do. For flyingrated jobs, 63 percent of malerated officers remain in the Air Force after 13 years, while 39 percent of women in that field still are in uniform.
Veteran pilots, who can’t leave the service until completing a decadelong service commitment, are exiting in droves, leaving the Air Force with a shortage of 2,000 pilots. Many head for lucrative jobs as commercial airline pilots.
Research examining gender differences in retention has put a spotlight on issues important to women — marital and family status, work-family balance and frequency of deployments, and permanent change of station, called PCS, that force civilian spouses to scramble for a new job. Frequently, dualmilitary couples end up working at different bases hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
Changes have been made. The Air Force extended maternity leave from six to 12 paid weeks two years ago as part of a sweeping Pentagon directive. Under the new policy, it also deferred fitness tests and deployments for a year after giving birth. Those tests had been required six months after delivery.
Rand made a host of recommendations, one of which would reduce the frequency of PCS orders. Others call for considering a couple's parental status in deployment decisions, expanding child care and providing greater career flexibility. One idea would allow airmen to work in a technical specialty rather than move up the ranks into managerial jobs.
Retired Maj. Gen. Susan Pamerleau, a former commander of the Air Force Personnel Center on Randolph and a former Bexar County sheriff, cautioned that any deviation from the way people progress in the military’s “up-or-out” career track, including allowing some to work exclusively in technical jobs, could cost the service good leaders.
“There’s no way to just come to a halt and say, ‘OK, I’m not going any farther but now I can stay for as long as I want,’ ” said Pamerleau, the fourth woman in the active-duty Air Force to become a two-star general.
“There are two things it can do,” she continued. “It can stagnate the opportunity for others to move up. And the second part is it has the potential to limit the numbers of ways to be considered for senior leadership positions.”
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said efforts under underway “to look at outdated policies that drive women away from serving and eroding readiness,” such as reducing strict pregnancy limitations for flying and offering career intermission programs to keep experienced airmen. The Air Force also is studying uniforms and equipment to ensure they’re appropriately designed for all airmen.
Women long have had to use equipment designed for men.
“To me this is a joint warfighting imperative,” Goldfein said. “We must retain our most talented officers and NCOs so we have the diverse leadership required to find creative solutions to complex challenges.”
One of the latest innovations: A tan- or sand-colored breastfeeding T-shirt women can use with their utility uniforms.
Struggling to stay
Like many women in the Air Force, Bri Peterson, 35, grapples with problems that seem to defy solution — the uprooting of her family every few years for a new assignment; the ordeal of finding on-base child care; resolving occasional conflicts between work and family; and watching her husband launch yet another job search.
“It’s a struggle we’re going to face every time I get orders, that he’s going to have to leave whatever job he’s in and find a new job,” she said.
Day care is another headache. Before moving to Randolph, the couple enrolled Gavin in one of the base Childcare Development Centers. Almost a year passed before they got an offer in May.
“Fortunately, my mom is retired; so she was able to come down and take care of our son for us,” Peterson said.
A private breastfeeding place at work also would be helpful, which was noted in the study.
“The fact that they highlighted the point that the breastfeeding room should not be a bathroom. When I had my son, my last squadron, it was a bathroom in a building with … only two women’s bathrooms,” she said. “So I was in there for however long it took me to close down an entire bathroom in the building.”
Finally, the biggest challenge is whenever Grant loses his job. It happens every time they move and will be a recurring feature of their lives as long as Bri is in the service. They could get a new assignment as early as next year, forcing him to quit the camera exchange store and start over.
“He’s very supportive of my career, and he knows it’s something that has to happen until I separate from the military,” said Bri, who has more than 2,600 flying hours in the C-17 cargo plane, T-1 training jet and other aircraft. “He’s got the experience in order to be the next-level manager in running multiple stores, but because we move around so much, that’s not a position he’s going to get hired to do until we stop moving.”
Committed to their careers
Peterson and two fellow pilots in her wing, Maj. Lindsay Andrew and Lt. Col. Allison Patak, said they plan to stay in the service until they retire, despite the challenges.
They said they want Air Force careers, not jobs in the civilian world. The inflection point for pilots, who have a 10-year service commitment, comes after 12 or 13 years in the ranks.
“That particular time frame, in which the women leave at about double the rate of men, there’s a lot of things that happen,” said Andrew, 36, of Marion. “For pilots, it is the first time that we are allowed out of our pilot commitment, so the 10- to 12-year mark is when a lot of women leave.
“The Reserves offer a lot of opportunity and a lot more flexibility than the active-duty does; so a lot of it is outside opportunity. And then on top of that is the military lifestyle is
“It’s a struggle we’re going to face every time I get orders, that he’s going to have to leave whatever job he’s in.”
Maj. Bri Peterson, a T-1 instructor pilot, about her career’s impact on the life of her husband, Grant
Air Force Lt. Col. Allison Patak is suited up for a training flight from Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
Lt. Col. Catie Hague and her husband, Nick, a colonel, have spent seven of their 20 years in the Air Force apart.
Lt. Col. Allison Patak says she didn’t have a female adviser to help thread her way between her work and home priorities. The problem grows as careers progress.
Helmets wait to be worn during training flights at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
Lt. Col. Catie Hague (center) looks through an orientation binder for ROTC cadets.