A Navigator in the Air Force: From Refueling Missions to Transporting Remains

Samantha Gassman served eight years as a Navigator in the Air Force.  She worked as an Air Force Special Operations Instructor Navigator with 1,600 flight hours, 305 of those hours being in combat. During her time in the Air Force, she deployed to Afghanistan and Africa in support of OPERATION Enduring Freedom. She is the recipient of the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, AF Special Operations Command Company Grade Officer of the Year Award, Institute of Navigation Superior Achievement Award, and the Brigadier General Ross G. Hoyt Award. Currently, she is a Human Resources Operations Manager at a major defense company. Samantha is also a children’s book writer and is seeking literary representation.  She lives with her active-duty husband, toddler son, and two naughty cats in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Listen to the whole episode here.

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being a navigator in the air force

Being a Navigator in the Air Force – Episode 62

Amanda: Why did you decide to join the military?

Samantha: So there are a lot of reasons for my decision to join the military. One was a very practical reason when I was in high school, 9/11 happened and I was in my classroom.

Everyone saw the news breaking that day and it touched me very deeply. You know, I felt a need to serve as a result of that. Also for me, I was the first person in my family to join the US military, and I was also the first to become a US citizen. And so when it came to giving back to the country that had, you know, really taken us in and tried it for us, I felt that it was my duty to do so.

My family and I are from England originally, and so I know it’s not too different in terms of culture and such, but in language of course, but it was enough of a change for me when I moved when I was eight where I really felt like I should give back to the US and I really wanted to do that.

Amanda: So what year in high school are you when September 11th happened?

Samantha: I think I was a freshman and I was in the civics class of all things. When, when you saw that happen.

Amanda: Okay. I was on the West coast, so I woke up to the radio and heard the news. And so I think it’s interesting to hear people who were like already up and about their day, and then it was like all of a sudden it happened senior.

So you’re a little bit younger than me but pretty close.

Samantha: Yeah, I guess the other thing, you know, I said there were practical reasons as well, is when I was going through college, there was a recession that happened, you know, 2007/2008 and that was when I was scheduled to graduate. And so I was already in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at that time, but it was really nice to have that assurance that I would have a job when I left college.

And 2008 was a really rough time for a lot of folks. I was very grateful to have something to do after school.

Amanda: Yeah, I remember. I graduated in 2007 and so that makes sense. Yeah. How did you find out about ROTC?

Samantha: I went to the University of Nebraska and they sent me the undergraduate perspectives and I was just flipping through it, looking for, you know, what kind of major I would pursue, all the different classes that I could take.

And I was really excited because I’m kind of a nerd and I love to, I just love reading about classes that I can take. I know it sounds weird, but I have two strange passions in my life. One is school supplies and the other is reading about classes. And as I was flipping through it, I saw this whole section dedicated to the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

And even though I grew up in Colorado where we have multiple bases, and of course the Air Force Academy. I admit that I had never heard of ROTC before. It wasn’t offered at my high school, so I didn’t know about the junior ROTC program. And so when I read about it in the college perspective, it said, Hey, come try us out for a couple of years.

If you like it, you can continue and potentially commission into one of the armed services. If you don’t like it, no harm, no foul, give back all the uniforms and stuff, and then you can go on your way. And I thought, you know, that’s, that’s a really cool idea. I mean, you can, you can try it out and if you like it, you can proceed.

And so I thought. You know, there’s really no harm, no foul to trying it out for a couple of years. And it just, it seemed exciting to me. There was a movie that had come out recently where they featured, you know, fighter jets at the very end. And I remember after seeing that movie, I was like, that could be me like, the Air Force is so cool and so, you know, it’s funny because originally when I looked at it, I was like, I want to be in the Navy. And my mom kind of sat me down on that. There’s anything wrong with the Navy at all, but she sat me down. She goes, “Sam, you’re from Colorado, which is an Air Force state. You’re going to a landlocked state for schools. So I mean, I’m sure they have a great Navy ROTC program”, but she’s like, “you know, you haven’t really been around water. You know, it’s not, swimming is not something that I do regularly”. She’s like, “maybe you just want to reconsider that”. Like, yeah, maybe you’re right.

So I started looking at the careers and what they offered in the Air Force was a little bit more in line with what I thought I might want to do. So I decided that I would. Go into the Air Force ROTC program, and as soon as I entered and I saw what it was all about, I just totally fell head over heels in love with it.

I was super huge like ROTC nerd, every extracurricular ROTC activity that you could do, I was like the president of, or somehow involved with. I did honor guard and I did Arnold Air Society, and I just, I loved it. And I, it took up all my time, but I felt like it was worthwhile. And the leadership experience that I got out of that was, was invaluable.

I mean, yes, it’s kind of pretend that it’s, you know, it’s not the real Air Force or whatever. And we were reminded of that plenty of times, but the comradery that I felt with the other cadets and the knowledge that we were all training to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And I mean, even the silly stuff like.

I liked the marching and I liked the PT program and I just, I loved all that stuff. It kept me in great shape.

http://www.airmantomom.com/women-of-the-military-ebook/

Amanda: Yeah. I, I really liked it, you were talking about how you can like to try out ROTC and see, and I like that you have that like no commitment option because it’s all really scary to think like joining the Air Force.

Like you go into boot camp,  it’s not “no commitment”. It’s like you go and that’s what your agenda do, but ROTC really does that have that flexibility where you can try it out, see if it’s for you, and then if you don’t like it, you’ve still had like a great experience of learning about leadership and making friends and that sort of thing.

But if you do, and like. You sound a lot like me where you’re like this is what I have been looking for and got really involved. And so that’s, that’s really cool.

Officially An American

Samantha: Yeah, exactly. And for me, I had an additional hurdle cause like I said, I was the first to get my citizenship. So before I could go to field training between my sophomore and junior year. I had to become a citizen because they said, you can’t be an officer unless you become a citizen.

And I was like, well, that makes sense. So there was actually a cadet in my wing who was very intertwined with the Nebraska state legislator, and so he was actually able to involve a lot of these state government officials in my citizenship ceremony, and I have letters still from like the treasurer and the governor, and it’s really, really neat.

And so at first, it was just supposed to be this little small ceremony and it was like, okay, here you go. You raise your right hand and profess your allegiance to the US and also renounce your allegiance to the UK. Really funny to me to like, do you announce your allegiance to the queen? And I was like, ah, sure.

I don’t think I had any allegiance, to begin with. So yeah. But it was this whole ceremony and like my mom ended up coming out and we did it during the leadership labs, so all my cadet friends were there and it was, it was really, really cool. And then like I said, that kind of inspired my parents to then go and get their citizenship and say they’re not planning on leaving and they aren’t planning on leaving.

And then my brother followed suit. And so it was just really neat to kind of start that chain reaction if you will.

Amanda: And so are you guys just on a green card? Is that how it works? I don’t really know a lot about it.

Samantha: I was a kid so, I can’t tell you the exact details. We were permanent residents and so that’s, yeah, it’s more than a green card.

It’s just, you know, you’ve decided to come to this country permanently and you’re just living here and you just haven’t received it yet.

Amanda: Okay. And so then you started that process and then you got your citizenship so that you could go to field training, which is kind of like Bootcamp between your sophomore and junior year. How did you end up in the career field of Navigator? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Samantha: Yeah, sure. So I think it’s your junior year. They ask you to pick. Kind of your wishlist of what positions you’d like to pursue in the Air Force and there’s rated and nonrated and within the rated career fields I decided to just pretty much put in for everything you know at flying or not.

I put in for pilot, navigator, and Air Battle Manager (ABM) and I also put in for a handful of other rated positions. I wasn’t qualified for non-rated cause those are things like your JAG and your medical Corps. So I put in for everything I took the. AFOQT, the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, and that somehow predicts your ability to perform in that position.

And so when the results came back, I, I was doing fairly well and my waiting, having, been the cadet wing commander, like I said, total nerd. And so it came back that I was going to be a Combat Systems Officer/Navigator. And I really didn’t know what that was because, I mean, when I read the description, I was like, yeah, that sounds really neat.

You operate all the systems and you tell the pilots where to go and you are in charge of the, you know, the air of navigation, but until you really get into the training, it was kind of a mystery to me. I just, I knew that I was going to fly. I didn’t know what aircraft yet. I knew that I was going to go to Randolph Air Force base for training.

As soon as you get your rated position as a flyer, you have to be submitted for top-secret clearance, which was an interesting process as I have. So much family overseas, know anybody who’s foreign? I was like, ah, yeah, actually a lot. So that was interesting. But yeah, it just, it seemed really, really cool. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but I had faced that the two years of training would prepare me enough to do what I needed to do.

Amanda: Yeah. So your first assignment was San Antonio go to training, and what was that like and how did that process go?

Samantha: Navigator training was a blast. It was pretty much a second college for me. You’re already in study mode. You’ve got built-in friends that are there because they’re all going through the same thing.

You’re studying, you’re learning, you’re flying, you’re hanging out with people that will show up again and again in your community because you’re all navigators, and even though you don’t fly the same aircraft, inevitably you end up with them like squadron officer school, or you see them on a TDY or you.

Somehow happened to be at the base that they fly at and when you go out somewhere. So that was a really cool experience. So I was in, I was in undergraduate navigator training for about a year. I got my wings in July of 2009. And then from there, since I was selected to go to the MC130 in Air Force Special Operations Command, I then had to go to Little Rock for MC130 training, which was about six months long, which I did in the winter and Arkansas is very cold in the winter.

And then after I was done with that, I had to go to survival school, which I also did in the winter, and it was up in Washington state, and I froze my butt off and it was very cold, but it was a great experience. One that I’d never want to repeat again.

And then I had to go to Kirtland Air Force base in New Mexico for my final training. And that’s also where I pinned on First Lieutenant. I walked out one day as a butter bar and I came in the next day with a silver bar on and it was like, okay, whatever.

LT, let’s get going. It’s funny cause I hear. You know, like in other career fields, you know, we make a big deal, like in my husband’s career field right now, he has people who promote from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant, and he’s like, yeah, we’re going to do a promotion ceremony. And I was like, you do that for lieutenants?

Okay, we didn’t, but okay, that’s cool. In fact, the only promotion ceremony I guess I ever had was to captain. It was only because I was deployed that I kind of wanted to do something more with it than just walk out one day as a Lieutenant walk in the next day as a captain.

Amanda: Oh, I didn’t know that. Up until Major or like is it the whole way through?

Samantha: It probably depends on your unit. I just think within AFSOC, It’s like your Lieutenant and it just doesn’t, it’s not that important at that precise moment. I think Captain’s probably a little bit more and like I said, we did do something for that. But yeah, I mean we just don’t usually do that unless it’s for, like you said, a Major or higher.

Amanda: There were three of us that got promoted. One was getting promoted to Captain, and then we were both getting promoted to First Lieutenant and it was just the squadron came out and we did all, we bought food for the squadrons. They were very happy to celebrate our promotion. They were like, this is great.

Yeah. It is. It’s like a big deal, but it’s also not a big deal because it’s automatic. You know?

Samantha: Your chances are 100% unless you like really mess something up.

Traveling the World as Navigator in the Air Force

Amanda: After you finished all your training, then you got to start doing your job as a navigator in the Air Force.

Samantha: It’s funny to say that because the whole time during training I’m like, Oh my gosh, this is taking so long.

I just want to be operational. And then as soon as I was operational, I was like, wow, this ops tempo is really high. Like I can’t, I can’t believe I ever complained about having nothing to do during training and I was getting paid the same as I am now. I’m like, that was so silly of me.

I went to Kadena for three years, that was my first introduction to an operational flying squadron. I was at the 17th Special Operations Squadron. They’re part of the 353rd Special Operations Group, which was my first assignment and a very interesting one, just because you’re so far away from home and it’s a very, very close-knit unit.

You’re on an Island, which is like three hours South of this most Southern Island of Japan. It is 60 miles long by half a mile to two miles wide at its widest point. And so you run out of things to do, fairly quickly. And so your squadron is your family. I mean, there are opportunities to make friends with the locals, but it’s kind of difficult just based on intercultural challenges and positions and jobs and clearance and things like that.

But it was a great assignment and I got to travel a ton when I was there. Well, in terms of TDY’s and then also personal travel, I took a lot of that around the area as well. And it’s just. That was an experience that I will never get again in terms of the travel opportunities that I had. And I’m just so grateful that when I was, you know, 21-22 years old, I got to see places so some people never get to go to.

One of the most awesome places I ever went to was Nepal. I’ve been to India before, actually, thanks to the ROTC program. They had like a cultural immersion program that I participated in. Yeah. Which was great. But then I got to go to Nepal and like fly around and I got to see, you know, Mount Everest and like literally fly into Katmandu, which is in a bowl, which is a very interesting airfield to get in and out of.

And just their experiences like that, that I can’t get anywhere else. And it was incredible to be that age and, you know, be doing that job in an area where, as I said, most people don’t really get to go. And when I. Thought about it. So I have traveled the entire world in a C-130 between Africa and Nepal, and that distance between those two countries is the only area I’ve not flown in a C-130.

It took a long time and we didn’t, obviously, it wasn’t all in one trip, but, between all my trips, back stateside, taking the plane into Depot for maintenance. And when I deployed from my squadron in Florida, we went East, so we went over Europe and then into theater. So that is the only distance remaining, which I doubt I’ll get to do now, but, and we’ll just have to leave it at that.

Amanda: So you talked about how you were in Kadena when you were in, you got to like fly all over. Can you talk about what your mission was and what you guys were doing?

Samantha: Sure. Well, a little bit. So within special operations, you know the mission of the MC-130P, which is now retired, by the way.

Now we have the MC 130J, but at the time the combat shadow aircraft, the primary mission was to do airdrops and also to refuel helicopters. So we worked a lot with the 33rd Rescue Squadron out there. Ther are the HH 60 helicopters, and then we also worked with the CV-22’s, and the MV-SS  is actually the Marine Corps Ospreys.

And so we flew a lot just around Kadena, training. And then we’d also partner with our allied special forces in Japan and the Republic of South Korea. So I actually got to interact and airdrop South Korean Special Operations Forces, which was pretty neat. And then pretty much wherever we went, we were doing training with the local military, like in Malaysia or Indonesia.

We did a big exercise in Korea. We did big exercises in Australia. I mean, we just, it was a lot of partnership and interaction with those local forces.

Amanda: That sounds really cool and kind of neat that you got to work with other, not just branches, but like other countries’ militaries, and got to learn a little bit about how they did stuff differently. And that’s really, cool.

Samantha: I think one of the scariest times I ever had though – when I was airdropping those Republic of Korea Special Operations Forces because only the jumpmaster had a good command of English. And so I was running to brief the running and the drop and the winds and like where I was going to drop them and where they needed to land to this jumpmaster.

And he was relaying what I was saying to this group of like 25 people and I was like, Oh my gosh, like they’re all staring at me, my little chart and this guy’s trying to explain what I’m telling them. I was just thinking, Oh my gosh, something’s going to get lost in translation and we’re just going to, it’s going to be bad.

But fortunately,  they all made it on the drop site just fine and, but yes, it was very, very, very nerve-wracking to just think about what they were getting cells into and to know that it was my math that they were relying on because it’s not exactly my strong suit, but I kind of. Did I was good enough to where I didn’t even have a problem like that?

But yeah, that’s kind of cool.

Amanda: And the information you were giving them, they needed to know. And so you had to rely on like the translator where it wasn’t really a translator. He just knew English. So that’s, it’s a little bit crazy.

Being Deployed as a Navigator in the Air Force

Amanda: I wanna shift gears a little bit and talk about your deployments. Which one did you do first? Africa or Afghanistan.

Samantha: I did Afghanistan first. Okay, so let’s talk about Afghanistan and where you were and what you guys were doing. As much as you can tell me. So I was at Bagram Air Base, which is a big old base, just North of Kabul by about 30 minutes or so. Again, we were doing a lot of the same stuff that we were doing in Japan only it was.

In support of the Army for the most part. So the Army has Forward Operating Bases all over the country, and some of them are out in the open. Some of them are nestled in foothills that are very high mountains. And so we would often get the call to go and airdrop supplies to them. Sometimes we would get the call that they were in a tic or tic troops in contact where.

They were no kidding fighting the enemy at that very second. And so we would need to divert from our mission to go into an emergency resupply. And that always made things really real to me because these men, these people were relying on us to get there on time and drop them their stuff immediately because they, no kidding, needed it to defend their position.

So that was really interesting. And the flying around there is crazy because you’ve got wide open, flat spaces in some areas, and then you’ve got giant, like huge mountains higher than anything, I think in the United States. And it’s just, it’s insane to fly around there. For the most part, we were flying high level, but then like I said, we’d have to go in for those drops and being very, very close to the ground.

And also you had the threat of small arms in AAA, so it got a little hairy a few times. We were definitely shot at, I remember one time we were coming in. For drop. We completed the drop and we were escaping out and we saw, I saw a tracer fire up where we were supposed to be flying and we made the decision right there to go a different route, which of course I had not previously planned.

So that always gets a little crazy because you never know like where there might be a, a box Canyon that’s going to trap you in. And. Yeah, a really bad day for you. So it definitely was an eyeopening experience. I remember sitting on the back of the aircraft looking out at the mountains of Afghanistan and just thinking, Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that I’m here.

I mean, and it was almost this thought of, what am I doing here? But then, you know, you remember the mission. And you remember all those people who are relying on you. And it really gave me a different perspective on our role there and what we were doing know. It was really fascinating. And then the other thing I’ll say about that deployment was there were a couple of times when we were called to do a human remains mission.

Transporting Remains of the Fallen Back Home

So we were called to one of the bases up North, and our job was to transport this casket. And it wasn’t even a casket. It was the body was on the litter and we had to bring him. Back to Bagram for an immediate flight out to Ramstein. And so the whole unit who was there came on board our aircraft and they gave a very solid salute.

And we were there to do the same and to pay our respects. And it was just, it was a very emotional experience. You know, there are people who were out there doing the mission and they lost one of their own, and it was our job to get them back home, or at least start that journey back home. At least get them from that base to the main area so that they could go.

So that was very emotional. And I never enjoyed those missions. But it definitely made things very real for me to know that you know, we are mortal and even though we’re flying around and we think we’re doing a cool job, and you know, we think, Oh yeah, AFSOC we’re awesome. Yes. But you know, there are people out there who are doing the real mission.

They’re on the ground. They are under real danger. I mean, we, yes, we got shot at, but it’s nothing like what the Army folks were going through in their FOBs where they’re positioning can be overrun or, you know, the other Air Force folks that were. You’re tracking out in convoys or God bless them, the EOD folks who are out there doing an incredibly dangerous mission.

So, Afghanistan for me was a wake-up call in terms of what we’re doing out there in the war. And then also where I fell kind of in the pecking order of importance within the military, because like I said when you grew up in the flying community, you’re taught, you know, Hey, you’re the flyer. Like, you know, the Air Force revolves around you, the zipper suited some gods, and then in AFSOC, that culture is even more so because it’s like, Oh, you’re special operations, you’re doing really special, like super-secret stuff. But then you get to go deploy and it’s like, yeah, you know, our mission is cool and it’s definitely very, you know, valuable. But the Army Special Forces, you know, the Rangers, the Seals, the Navy, like those guys who are on the ground doing that stuff are just incredible. And I was, I was very grateful to support them.

Amanda: Yeah. And I think that’s a good point of like the reality of war. When you do a mission like that where you’re bringing home someone who’s no longer alive and how like humbling that can be. How long were you in Afghanistan?

Samantha: A few months. And that’s the other part of it too. Right. So some folks are out there for, you know, a year or more. So again, like in AF SOC, it was, we had so many deployment opportunities that we rotated crews through just to get the experience. And so we weren’t out there for very long. I mean, 90 days is 90 days, but it was still, you know, compared to other deployments, not long at all.

Amanda: Yeah. I feel like you would barely get the, like feel the terrain and like everything. Or did you feel like you felt pretty comfortable? Really quickly?

Samantha: Comparable because the other nav on my crew, since we have two navigators, he was a prior C-130 guy and he was an instructor back at home and he had already been deployed before.

So having that experience right next to you was very probably comforting for me because I’m like, Oh, well he’s got it if something goes wrong. But he was also a really great mentor and Jeff, if you happen to be out there listening, thank you for putting up with me because I’m sure I was just so like, Rosie-eyed you know, Rose-colored glasses and just very naive about what was going on. So he put up with a lot for me.

Amanda: Yeah. And that’s, that’s a good reminder of how important it is to have like a mentor that can guide you and how they can make something that’s really scary or challenging and a lot easier because they can push you in the right direction.

So then you know that your next deployment was to Africa, right?

Samantha: Yes.

Amanda: So let’s talk a little bit about that and what your mission was and what you were doing.

A Newsworthy Mission

Samantha: So I was in Djibouti and it was, it was a slightly different mission. We didn’t have as many airdrops to do there. It was mostly aerial refueling for the CV 22 unit that was out there with us because they can get in and out of places over more easily than we can.

We did have one really interesting mission though, and that was December 21st, 2013 if you look it up online, you’ll see multiple new stories about how we were going into South Sudan for an embassy evacuation. That was when there were some, there was some unrest in that area and we were charged with getting those people out.

Actually, the CV 22s were, and so we were there to refuel them because the CV 22s range would be extended by us being with them. So while they went into that airfield to go and retrieve these embassy workers, folks on the ground, the locals on the ground opened fire. And fortunately, they hadn’t landed, they were just doing a pattern, but the damage was significant enough to where several of them, there were three of them, two of them got hit in the fuel tanks, and so they were literally leaking gas.

And so my job during that was there were two MC 130s I was the lead navigator in the formation, and so I had to calculate how much fuel we had, how much fuel the CV 22’s had, what rate they were losing fuel because again, they were shot and had in the fuel tank. And then also what airfields we can get to that would support five aircraft, which there aren’t many because a lot of the strips in Africa are disturbed and how we’re going to get any casualties that are on the CV 22s out to a bigger hospital.

So it was a lot, and there were a lot of factors that we had to consider. Fortunately, like I said, the MC 130P has two navigators, so I had a junior nav to me who was there helping as well, but I was the instructor in that position. So it was ultimately up to me to decide where we’re going to go and what we were going to do.

And then there were two other navigators on the other MC 130 as well. So I definitely had support. And of course, our pilots were phenomenal, but that was a very scary situation because, no kidding, there were casualties on the CV 22’s that needed to be taken care of immediately. We had aircraft that were leaking fuel and we’re trying to give them fuel at the same rate we’re trying to get to an airfield that would support all of us, and it was, that was a very stressful time.

The airborne mission commander was sitting right next to me on the aircraft and he was trying to get answers from me. My pilots were asking me questions. The other navigator was asking me questions and I actually just had to tell everyone, just give me a minute. I just need to confirm my calculations, make sure my math is good.

Again, it came down to math. Thank God there were other people there and we had to figure out where to go and what to do. And so if, as I said, if you look it up online, you can see the whole article. And what was crazy about the whole situation was, fortunately, we were able to land, we got to Nairobi in Kenya and we were able to get all five aircraft down on the ground.

We were able to coordinate with a heavier aircraft. I think it was a C 5 or C 17 either way, AMC brothers there also, and they were able to get those CV 22 casualties out. And they were able to get them back to a base that could support them. So everything turned out okay. There was one person who was actually hit right in the body armor, like right where his chest was.

It was one of the flight engineers on the CV 22 and so again, it’s one of those instances where you had that realization that this is real and people can get hurt and people did get hurt. And just the importance of my job on that day was made really apparent to me, and so just kind of reminds me, you know, yes, this is fun and yes, we’re having a good time.

And yes, you’re there with your crew, which was the best crew I ever flew with. But also you’re doing a very, very important job. Really interesting times.

Amanda: Yeah. And I’ll link to that article. I’ll find an article about it and put it in the show notes so that people if they want to find it they don’t have to Google it.

ATTACK ON U.S. AIRCRAFT FOILS EVACUATION IN SOUTH SUDAN

But I think that the story does a really good job. Cause I think a lot of times when I’ll say people like me who don’t know anything about what navigators do, you might think, well like we have GPS, we have like all this stuff, we don’t need navigators. But then when you talk about like how much more to it there is than just like getting from point a to B, which I know that you guys still do the calculations cause I talked to another navigator about that.

Still, there’s like so much more to it than just that. I think that’s one tiny piece and that’s how most people know. But to talk about like all the other factors that were going into that one mission and how you guys were trained and ready to respond. And I mean, just thinking like calculating how much fuel is coming out and how much fuel you had and getting

Like so much stuff and it just puts it all in perspective.

Samantha: Yeah. I’m not just a real-life Siri guys. And what’s funny, so we have, we always had this joke on aircrews where when we’re on the ground, pilots should never drive. Navigators should never look up where we’re going. And loadmasters should never load our stuff, and engineers should never diagnose car problems just because, it’s so funny. My husband tells me this all the time, he’s like, but your navigation skills suck. And I’m like, well. It’s different on the ground like it’s so different than being up in the air. I mean, up in the air I have charts and I’ve got radar and I’ve got like all these tools and I’m like on the ground I’ve got stop signs and like traffic and stuff.

It’s only different. It’s like your general sense of direction. Like again, I had a compass, it was different. It’s like, okay. I’m like, and besides, I mean obviously I did okay for myself.

Amanda: Right, and you are trained in that…

Samantha: Exactly, two years of training!

Amanda: Apparently that was worth something.

Samantha: Yea, I don’t think the Air Force would spend that much money on us if they didn’t find some value in it.

Amanda: So we talked a little bit about your deployments. You want to talk about any of your other home stations. So you were in Kadena, where else were you stationed?

Samantha: So after Kadena came back stateside, and I went to Hurlburt Field in Florida, which was. A great assignment as well as at the 9th Special Operations Squadron.

My first job there was as an exec, I worked directly for the commander, which was a lot of fun getting kind of the inside scoop into how the unit work from an administrative perspective. I also felt like that job was the first one that really opened me up to other leadership opportunities because it was kind of a gateway into my next position.

I will also say that for those of you looking at the military and being a Nav and being a flyer but then wondering about the practicalities of. What do you do with that after you leave or after you get out? I will say that being an exec was probably one of those positions that helped me get my civilian job because it’s skills that aren’t necessarily specific to the Air Force.

I mean, yes, you follow the policies and procedures for, you know, performance reports and what have you, but. It’s HR. Basically it’s human resources work. So while I won’t say that that job got me the one I’m in now, it certainly kind of helped me understand the human administrative aspect of, you know, businesses.

Also, Hurlburt was the first time I got to have real-life leadership experience, you know, more so than just your aircrew stuff, which you know, isn’t necessarily leadership in its true form because after I was the exec at the 9th  SOS, I got to go to the first special operations support squadron where I was in charge of 75 aircrew flight equipment airmen. They also gave me my very own chief, which was amazing cause I had like never even seen a chief before.

And now this guy’s working for me. And one of the very first discussions we had was I was like Chief, so you know, when did you come into the Air Force? And he said something like, Oh, you know, something, something 1987 and I was like, ah. I was like, Chief. I don’t mean to make you feel old here, but I was like four months old when you joined the military and I told him I was “Chief, Like, obviously you have so many more years of experience than I do. You’ve been around a while, you know this career field inside and out, and you know your people inside and out because they often rotated that flight commander position. You know, every year, every year and a half. I know that I’m just in a rotating door here.

I’m like, but what I can do for you guys is I’m not going to be the subject matter expert. I’m not going to know the ins and outs of your job. I’m like, but what I can do is make sure that we take care of our airmen together, that we protect them in terms of administrative stuff, that we fight for them and we can, that we really look out for their wellbeing, and that’s the stuff that I’m here for.”

So, Chief fully recognized you, your authority and your experience in life. But I will help where I can and I will lead this flight as best I can. And that was such an awesome experience. And again, that’s one of those, those positions where not only did it help me realize just the importance of leadership at that lowest level, but also I feel like it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in terms of really getting to know my Airmen and really take care of them. I mean, I had, I had 19-year-old Airman right out of basic training, right out of there aircrew flight equipment training. They had come to Hurlbert for their very first duty assignment all the way up to, you know, your, your Chief. I also had three master sergeants who worked for me as well, and it was just as crazy to have that much experience in one area. I think between them they had a hundred years of Air Force experience and here I am like a six-year captain going, okay guys, I’m in charge. And it was very humbling and it was great. I swapped out the flight suit from and I wanted to be, you know, one with the airmen and I tried to visit them as much as I could and take care of them and go to there, you know, extracurricular.

They had a football, like a flag football team. They did. And. It was. It was an awesome experience. That was probably the highlight of my Air Force career was getting to work with those airmen and take care of them.

Amanda: I love that story, and if you’re listening and you don’t know what a Chief is, it’s an E-9 in the Air Force.

It’s the highest rank that enlisted members can be. So sometimes we get all Air Force-y and I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I just wanted to clarify, and just in case people were like, what is she talking about?

Samantha: Chief Master Sergeant. Dale Warrants. He’s an awesome guy.

Amanda: Was that where you got out of the Air Force?

Samantha: Hurlbert Field is where I decided to leave the military.

Amanda: And when in the bio you said that your husband’s on active duty right now, so how did you meet your husband?

Samantha: So we actually met. In the first Special Operations Support Squadron, because within that unit, it’s a very unique unit in so far as you have operations folks, your fliers like me, you had medics, you had aircrew, flight equipment, folks.

You had folks who work in the tower, had Intel. I mean, it’s just a smattering of different career fields and it’s gotta be one of the only. Units that really have that many career fields continued in that same unit. So long story short is there were medics in the first special operations squadron with me and my husband, at the time a flight commander of the medical flight. And so he just kinda came in one day and was like, hi, I’d like to introduce myself since you’re new around here and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I was like, Oh. Thanks. Like you’re, you’re cute. And so, you know, it’s one of those, it wasn’t a super taboo thing.

He was a major at the time when I was a captain and we were both flight commanders. We weren’t in each other’s chain of command or anything. So no issues there. But we met while in that squadron. Yeah. The rest is history, as they say.

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Amanda: And so did you already, were you guys already married when you got out?

Samantha: No. So I took a brutal leap of faith, which was probably a little ridiculous. No. So we were together and I decided to get out of the military one because I was getting older and I realized that while I’d had a lot of fun. And I’ve seen a lot of places that ultimately I really wanted a family, and I have seen it where mil to mil couples can work.

And in fact, I knew several, like other women in my squadron who was married to the military as well, and you know, they found a way to make it work, but it’s just, I saw how difficult it was for them with the constant separations. And especially if they’re both in the same career fields or similar, you end up not competing with each other, but at some point, one career has to take priority over the other.

And It just, there was so many extra factors that I decided that I did not want to deal with. So that was one reason to leave. And then the other issue was flying on a C-130 for a long period of time can obviously have some adverse health effects. There were several people who lost some hearing. You know, you’re constantly like wearing body armor and helmets that strain your neck and back.

And I was having, you know, a few kinds of minor back issues. And so I just thought, yeah, you know, from a health perspective, this might be a good time to leave and get out. Another kind of practical, more practical reason was my MC-130P was retiring, and so they wanted me to transition aircraft. And so originally they said, Hey, why don’t you go to the AC 130 gunship and I have no issue with the gunship. I thought that was a really exciting opportunity, but they were just, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to advance my service commitment any further. After you complete training, I think it was an extra one or two years that you tack on. And at that point, I was already at eight years.

And so when I thought about it longterm, I thought, well, if I add on another two years, that’s 10 and then I’m halfway to retirement. I would just kind of feel kind of silly if I’d gotten out of the halfway point. So I thought if I’m going to get out. Now’s a good time. I’m at the end of my service commitment.

I don’t have another one unless I sign up for more training. And you know, I was in my late twenties and I had this guy that I really liked and I thought, well, I’ll get out and see what else is out there. I’m going to leave the military now is as good a time as anywhere I can get a position, hopefully fairly easily in and still have a full career doing something else.

I actually applied to the school to graduate program at the University of Chicago and it was accepted there and had every intention of going. And then my then-boyfriend, now-husband got orders out to LA Air Force Base. And so that was going to be a challenge in terms of a long-distance relationship.

And I just, I was like, you know, I’m 29 whatever. I don’t really feel like doing that. And I’m pretty sure that this is going to be the guy for me. So I ended up applying and getting into the University of Southern California. And so in my mind, I thought, well. If things don’t work out with me and this guy, then at least I’m getting a degree that I can use and I can, you know, progress from there.

And so to me it all very, it seemed very logical, but of course, in reality, it was like, no, I just, I want to go with Ryan to Los Angeles and we’re going to get married and have babies. Unfortunately, a few months after we got there, we got there In I think July, after hauling all of our stuff across the country, from Florida to California, which was like the longest week of my life, and a few months later, actually on his birthday, He was going to do it on mine, but plans fell through, on his birthday in October. He proposed and we got married the next year, so it was great and everything worked out. I was like, see, mom, and dad.

Amanda: It was great. That’s cool. I’m glad that it all worked out and that you took, so did I miss anything from your time in the military that you wanted to talk about?

Samantha: I would just like to go back real quick to Djibouti and just say that the aircrew there that I flew with was the best crew that I’ve ever flown with in my entire life.

We were extremely close-knit. Everybody on that crew was amazing.

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Amanda: So my last question is, what would you tell young women who are considering joining the military?

Samantha: I would tell them to study hard and don’t take any crap. And do it. Do the job the best you can. Understand that in the military, even though it is a male-dominated industry, that people respect competence more than anything else.

If you’re good at your job, it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, black, white, anything else. If you’re doing your job well and you can be trusted to do your job at all times and you do it well, you won’t have any issues at all.

The other thing I would say is just to recognize what an honor it is. To be serving your nation’s military to be wearing our flag.

The Armed Services and veterans are some of the most respected group of people we still have in this country, and it’s a brotherhood of arms and enjoys it. Enjoy it while you can. Enjoy the travel opportunities, enjoy that comradery that you have with your fellow airman. I’m telling you now, there is not another company in the civilian side that will give that to you, the full understanding that you’re not only responsible for people at work, but you’re responsible for people in their personal lives as well. So much of the job of the flight commander that I enjoyed so much was really taking care of people and getting involved in things that civilian companies don’t do.

I mean, even now when my colleagues go out because they’re sick or they’re having surgery or something, I’m always the one that asks him about it because that’s just the type of family that I came from in the Air Force. And so enjoy it. Have a great time. Be smart, you know, don’t do anything too dumb. I mean, we all do, but try not to get into too much trouble and enjoy the honor that it is to serve in the military.

Amanda: I love that and I really appreciate you taking time out of your day so that we could do this interview. I loved, I loved hearing your stories and to learn more about what it’s like to be a navigator in the Air Force. I think. People will really understand more what it means to be a navigator and maybe even choose that as their career path.

So thank you so much.

Samantha: Yeah do it. Thanks, Amanda.

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What is it like to be a Navigator in the Air Force? Check out this week's episode of the Women of the Military Podcast where Samantha shares her experience as a navigator in the Air Force. Have questions about joining the military? Listen to stories of military women past and present. #podcast #militarywomen #navigator #airforce #military #militarylife #specialforces #womenofthemilitary #hercombatboots #militarywoman #militarypodcast #militarystories

 

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