She's just one of the guys

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt.Nika Glover
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Her favorite color is pink. It's the color of choice for many of her accessories to include the clips she uses to hang her gear, the case for her laptop and the reflective belt around her waist. Although she's often covered in sweat, wears combat boots to work and doesn't mind getting her hands dirty, she still wants people to know she's all woman.

"I like pink because it's feminine and having my pink reflective belt is my chance to be feminine," said Airman 1st Class Christina Gillespie, a loadmaster with the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. "Pilots always ask why I wear it and I say because it's cute and it gives me a chance to be girly in a very masculine setting."

She describes herself as a "girly girl" who has a big heart and is willing to help anyone and everyone. Her mother is her best friend and she knows the people back in her home city of Paola, Kan., love her unconditionally. It's what keeps her going, lets her be herself and live with no regrets.

Airman Gillespie is only one of four female loadmasters deployed here. Seeing the other three women who are assigned to different units is rare. So to her, it often seems like she's the only woman doing her job. She said she's gotten so used to being the only girl on her crew that she often feels like she's just one of the guys.

When she joined the military three years ago, she didn't have a clear vision of her career goals. The idea to become a part of the loadmaster career field was implanted in her mind during a visit to her local military entrance processing station. She thought the job sounded interesting and the prospect of traveling was exciting. So after nearly a year of mentally and physically challenging technical training, she arrived at her home station at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

A few months ago, when the chance to deploy arose, she jumped at the opportunity.

"I chose to volunteer for this deployment because I'm single and I didn't want someone who has a family or a spouse to have to be away from them," Airman Gillespie said. "This is an awesome job if you're single. It can be a little more challenging if you have a family."

Since arriving here, Airman Gillespie has made her mark and an impression on others around her.

"Loading is hard work, but she never complains," said Tech. Sgt. Amenia Coleman, 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron crew chief. "Instead, she always looks for a solution to get the job done. She has a really positive attitude."

Being a loadmaster takes physical stamina and it's not for the faint-hearted. They are required to load everything from fire trucks to pallets weighing thousands of pounds.
They must properly secure the loads, evenly distribute the weight and be able to calculate the amount of weight in relation to the fuel the aircraft can handle.

"We're expected to know so much," Airman Gillespie said. "That's probably the hardest part of our jobs. We have to know all the aircraft limitations for loading. If anything happens or breaks on the jet, it comes down on us because we're the overall supervisor."

She said just being able to wake up and function for each mission is tough.

"We have to fly often which in itself takes a lot out of you physically," she said. "Along with that, if you're not properly hydrated, you can easily become dehydrated up there. "At high altitudes the air pressure is low so you breathe more and exchange your moist air for drier air. So we drink a lot of water."

She recently returned from an 18-hour trip and even with so little rest she's still upbeat about the missions.

"This is a great job," she said. "The incredible experiences I've gotten to be a part of and the traveling has been great. I would have never imagined doing all the things I have done by the age of 22."

She does get to have a little down time when the aircraft is airborne, so she uses that time to read a good fiction novel, watch a movie or kid around with her fellow crewmembers.

It was only 30 years ago that the very first female loadmaster, now retired Chief Master Sgt. Donna Lehmann, was assigned to the 326th Airlift Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Del. She admitted being the very first female in a male dominated career was challenging.

"I had to prove to myself consistently that I was able to do the job, which I did extremely well, and not expect any special treatment as a woman," she said.

The chief said she became a mentor to young women as they entered into the career field.

"I believe any person, regardless of their sex, can overcome any challenge if they are committed to their program," she added. "As more and more women enter the flying career, acceptance will be less of a problem."

Chief Lehmann offered some advice for Airman Gillespie.

"She shouldn't expect any special treatment," said the chief. "She should stay ahead of her training, ask questions and pull her weight on the crew. Not only is she a loadmaster on the crew, she is also responsible to the other crewmembers for doing her job above and beyond so that the cohesiveness of the crew will safely, efficiently complete the mission. If she believes in the core values of the Air Force, she will succeed."

Upon hearing the words of encouragement Chief Lehmann had to offer, Airman Gillespie said she was excited to hear from her and truly appreciated the advice she had to give.

However, she said she doesn't feel like the job is more difficult because she's a woman.

"To me it's just the type of job that requires you to toughen up a little bit," she said. "Being a man or woman doesn't matter. It takes a certain person to do this job. It's not for everyone. It's true; sometimes being a woman on an (otherwise) all male crew can be challenging. But the overall job requires you to be gone a lot, be flexible, able to think quickly and make a wise decision when put on the spot. That's the real challenge."

The crewmembers, who call her 'Diz' after the late jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, don't overly tease her about being the only girl.

"She's just as much a part of the crew as any one of us," said Capt. Theodore Shanks, 816th EAS instructor pilot. "I wish we had 20 more like her. She's a fantastic troop. She has excellent knowledge and skill for the job. We're glad to have her and I wish we could steal her away for our unit on a permanent basis. But at some point we'll have to give her up."

With three years left on her enlistment, Airman Gillespie said she's not entirely sure if she's going to retire from the military.

"A lot can change in time but I enjoy this job right now and I think I would enjoy a full career," she said. "I'm just taking it one choice at a time."

For now, she said she's motivated by the people she meets and the places she gets to visit while on assignment.

"Also, it's the knowing that each time we move the mission, it's directly affecting someone else," she added.