Malmstrom female commander breaking barriers in engineer field

  • Published
  • By Airman Daniel Brosam
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs Office
Looking down the road as a new lieutenant in 1994, Col. Yvonne Spencer never imagined she would be in the position she is in today -- a colonel and commander of one of only four active-duty RED HORSE units.

Spencer took command of the 819th RED HORSE Squadron in July and is the first African American and first female to lead her squadron. She’s also the first African American to lead an active-duty RED HORSE unit.

RED HORSE (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers) squadrons provide the Air Force with a highly mobile civil engineering response force to support contingency and special operations worldwide.

Spencer said when she thinks back on the past and the pioneers who paved the way for females, she feels the Air Force is carrying on the legacy.

"My Air Force is getting it right," she said. "My Air Force is accepting people for what they bring to the fight and not their packaging. They are looking at skills, capabilities, enthusiasm and successes.

"We are embracing those ideals that the military is known for," she continued.

Only two other females have been civil engineer commanders including retired Col. Susanne Waylett, former 823rd RHS commander and the first military woman to enter the Air Force civil engineering career field, and Maj. Gen. Theresa Carter, the first female engineering officer promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

Spencer's success speaks volumes for people wanting to lead and be successful, even when she may not have received as much support as she would have liked.

"I was putting together my package to apply to the Air Force Academy," she said. "I asked one of my instructors for a letter of recommendation and he declined. He told me, 'I don't think you have what it takes.'

"In hearing that, it was almost additional fuel to my fire," she continued. "In the back of my mind all I kept saying was 'watch me.'"

Even though Spencer's potential may have been doubted in the beginning, she worked hard and has risen through the ranks from lieutenant to colonel, proving herself to others that it is not physical attributes that matter, but what an individual brings to the table that counts.

"If you're attempting to do something and you're thinking 'I'm a female' or 'I'm this or that,' my reply to you is 'so what?'" Spencer said. "What do you have on the inside?

"You need to look within yourself and say 'what am I bringing to the fight?' and you keep moving in that direction," she added. "Do not take 'no' for an answer."

In her more than 20 years of success in the service, Spencer recalled one of her favorite memories while serving with her fellow Airmen.

"(One of my favorite memories was) the opportunity, as a major, to be a detachment commander," she said. "I was responsible for getting my folks, preparing them for the deployment and bringing everyone back in one piece. That was my first true opportunity to be a leader.

"It was a great feeling spending time with my Airmen and getting them back to their families," she continued.

Spencer said one of her proudest accomplishments was pinning on the rank of colonel because she never knew it was going to happen.

"You sit there as a lieutenant and look and see down the road and think 'there's no way, I'm not going to be able to do that,'" she said. "But I was able to achieve that level of rank. My family and friends were there sharing that accomplishment."

She added the accomplishment was not about her, but something larger.

"It was about the folks that I looked out to in the audience," she said. "Each one of them played a part in my success, small or large, and they fed into this machine that I am and to help me be successful. I am just so very thankful for it.

"I feel so privileged and honored that the Air Force believes in me to give me this level of responsibility."

When speaking about success, people speak of keys to success. Spencer's advice is just two words.

"Be nice," she said. "When I say that, it really means to be respectful to others. Showing that you care and just being nice to folks. Treat people the way you want to be treated. At the end of the day, we're a big Air Force, we're a big machine but the machine doesn't run without the people."

Spencer's story can be relatable to anyone with potential and the “nothing will stop me attitude.” She said if it's something that is important to an individual, a way to achieve that something will be made, the excuses will be removed and it will be achieved.

"You just can't stop," she said.