Advice from the top: Find your support, be supportive

  • Published
  • By Marisa Alia-Novobilski
  • Air Force Materiel Command

As one of only 11 female two-star general officers currently serving on active duty in the Department of the Air Force, Maj. Gen. C. McCauley von Hoffman is no stranger to being the sole woman among her peers. In fact, during the early years of her nearly 33-year Air Force career, von Hoffman was often the only female officer in her unit and field. 

Women’s History Month is an opportunity to share stories of the past and celebrate the achievements of individuals who operated outside of societal norms and achieved success, setting the stage for future generations to follow. 

Von Hoffman is the director of Logistics, Civil Engineering, Force Protection and Nuclear Integration at the Air Force Materiel Command. She received her commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Vanderbilt University in 1989 and became a supply and fuels officer, later cross-training into the aircraft maintenance field. 

Though she has a family history of service dating back to the early days of World War I, her initial motivation to join was actually more fiscally-inspired. 

“Air Force ROTC was sending me to college,” von Hoffman said. “My plan was to serve four years and a day, because that’s the scholarship payback, then on to law school. My life took a different path than I expected.” 

As a supply and fuels officer, von Hoffman’s first assignment was at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where she was assigned to a fighter unit where almost all the other officers and maintainers were men. At the time, it did not even cross her mind that she was the only female officer in the wing. 

“In my small part of the Air Force all I ever saw was men, and I just thought that it was the way it was, because that’s how it was at Nellis,” von Hoffman said. “I didn’t even stop to think whether there were any female maintenance or logistics officers out there.” 

As a young lieutenant, von Hoffman recalls being mentored by two separate chief master sergeants, both men, who did not see her as a “female officer,” but simply as a new officer. Their priority was to help make her a good lieutenant for the Air Force. 

“They were two great role models for me and didn’t see gender, which was rare at the time,” von Hoffman said. 

As von Hoffman progressed throughout her career, she recalls that it was not without challenges. She remembers one of her earliest deployments to the United Arab Emirates where she was the only female officer in her unit and unable to interact with host nation officers directly without a male counterpart present. It was enlightening for her to experience cultural differences pertaining to women that still existed. 

She also spoke of another instance when a peer’s positive compliment did not come across as intended, from her perspective. 

“They said, ‘you’re the best female officer I’ve met.’ In their mind, they were thinking it was a compliment,” von Hoffman said. “In my mind, I thought, I just want to be a good officer and part of the team. In the late 80s and early 90s, it was almost an ‘all-boys club,’ and that didn’t bother me.” 

It was during that time that various federal service women’s groups had started to form as a way for females to develop supportive relationships in the workplace. However, von Hoffman resisted participating for many years. 

“I didn’t want people to see me as a female officer. I just wanted them to see me as an officer. I was probably in that camp for about 8-10 years,” von Hoffman said. “Now, I see the value in women mentoring women and groups that lift each other up. It is something that I wish women in the Air Force could have learned a lot sooner — to take care of each other.” 

Today, von Hoffman searches for opportunities to reach out to younger officers and Airmen to learn about their challenges while sharing many of her own, both personal and professional. She encourages young Airmen to find that group of people in which they can share career and life challenges while gaining that uplifting support they need to navigate service life as a woman. 

She also shares some of her own personal work-life balance challenges with them, letting them know that they are not alone in the shared journey. 

“I am a working parent, and I understand the difficulty many face when trying to take care of a family and continuing to serve,” she said. “Not everyone can have a full-time support system, and when you can’t, and everything is not perfectly lined up, you have to cut yourself a break. It is times like these when you can rely on your group for support and know that you don’t have to do it alone.” 

Reflecting on Women’s History Month, von Hoffman sees this time as an opportunity to not only educate the next generation on the challenges so many women have overcome on the path to success, but she also views it as an opportunity to encourage more women to join the service and stay the path for the long term. 

“The Air Force has come a long way in terms of women in leadership roles, but we still have more progress to make,” she said. “This generation is going to get us there. We need to support each other and be supportive as leaders to our first-term Airmen and new lieutenants so they can have a career path free of barriers.”