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West Point visit sparks illustrious 30-year AF career

Graphic by Sylvia Saab

Graphic by Sylvia Saab

FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- Describing her career as "inconceivable," there isn't much that Maj. Gen. Sharon K. G. Dunbar would want to change. "I've done more than I ever imagined," said the small-hometown-in-Illinois commander of the Air Force District of Washington, Joint Base Andrews, Md.

"I've met incredible people everywhere I've been assigned," she said, recalling her postings throughout the U.S. and in Europe, four command tours, duty in the U.S. Senate, and those she met throughout her 18 career assignments in 30 years.

As the AFDW commander, Dunbar is now responsible for organizing, training and equipping Airmen for aerospace expeditionary force deployments, homeland operations, civil support, national special security and ceremonial events within the National Capital Region.

Following her graduation from the Air Force Academy in 1982, Dunbar spent her first 13 years in the contracting field, with assignments that included deputy commander of the United Kingdom contracting region. While there, she was recognized as the Air Force Contracting Officer of the Year in 1991 for her work during the first Persian Gulf War.

Dunbar made her mark during the latter part of her career in Department of Defense personnel positions that have had a direct impact on Air Force issues, specifically that of sexual assault. 

The general served on two defense task forces addressing difficult issues, first on sexual harassment and violence within the service academies, the second on sexual assault in the military services. She was also involved in implementing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "In so many ways, my time at the Academy prepared me well," Dunbar said.

While Dunbar is proud to be an Air Force Academy graduate, she credits West Point for starting her military career. That's because her brother, a year ahead of her in school, received an appointment to West Point. When she and her parents delivered him to the academy for the beginning of his first year, her parents realized that females were among the cadets.

Dunbar's parents--her mother an immigrant from Korea and her father of German descent-- were, in her words, "fiercely patriotic." As soon as they learned both genders could earn a service academy commission to serve their country, Dunbar said they "highly encouraged" her to apply. She obliged.

"My parents were extraordinarily patriotic, grateful immigrants and they wanted me to serve our country, too" said the daughter of a former airman first class.

Dunbar is the first to admit that she knew little about life at a service academy, "but you learn quickly to survive and thrive," said the 1982 graduate. Although hers was the third graduating class with female cadets, Dunbar encountered lingering skepticism over the inclusion of women. "The naysayers mostly questioned whether females could meet the mental and physical rigor. It was needless worry, but it certainly reinforced our tenacity," said the former high school athlete.

"Most change in life meets some resistance, but change is ultimately how our society and world progress. We couldn't field or sustain our all-volunteer military today without female service-members," said Dunbar. One case in point is that, over the last decade alone, more than 280,000 women deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While at the Air Force Academy, Dunbar met a fellow classmate, Doug Dunbar, and they married after graduation. Doug flew fighter jets on active duty before serving in the Air Force Reserve and retiring last year as a colonel. He now flies full time as an airline pilot.

Juggling career and children was a joint responsibility over their many moves. "I'd be telling a fib if I said it was easy, but we learned how to flex to the circumstances and kept our priorities straight to avoid major regrets," confided Dunbar. "Our kids know all about family teamwork."

The Dunbar's daughter attends law school in California and their son, an Army captain with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan.

"I totally empathize with families whose loved ones are deployed in harm's way. You're perpetually awaiting phone calls and emails to know all's well, or as much as it can be in a time of war."

Family has always been important to Dunbar, and she has seen major changes in how the military views the importance of family ties and involvement.

"Our Air Force has grown to understand and value how integral family is to military service. We realize that cultivating strong military families enables a stronger, more ready military." Dunbar also points out that very few organizations outside the military work as diligently to assign personnel based on Joint Spouse, Exceptional Family Members, humanitarian or other family circumstances.

Even with family nearby, there will always be challenges for the individual and for the Air Force. In discussing the topic of sequestration, Dunbar describes it as "the greatest challenge facing us today. But there is tremendous opportunity in it, as well," she added. "As we confront fiscal realities and even more change, we remain powered by Airmen and fueled by the innovation that keeps our Air Force the greatest fighting force around."

So, what would she tell a woman basic trainee entering the Air Force today? "I would tell her that the sky's no limit; that there are immense opportunities ahead in our Air Force. And then I would tell her 'Thank you for serving our country.'"

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