Rhonda Blackburn-Briggs, First Fulltime Woman Officer at the 185th

What made you choose this career? 

“I’d loved to say it was for patriotism, but honestly, it was the early 1980’s and the economy was bad, there weren’t many jobs. I had a general/studies degree from the University of Iowa and no work experience. The air guard was hiring traditional guard positions, and my boyfriend and I joined together. We attended basic training and then attended the once-a-month drill weekends. I didn’t purposely enter a male dominated career. I simply needed a job, and the 185th was hiring. At the time I joined the 185th, the unit personnel were about 13 percent female. In 2023, the statistics are about 20-21 percent female which is still not close to the 50 percent male/female ratio in general population.”

What advice can you offer women interested in this career field?

“My advice to young women and women in general who enter the military is to be yourself and be ready to stand up for yourself and be supportive of other women. Stand with other women. If you succeed, be ready to give advice and lend a hand to other women. You don’t need to act like a man, just be yourself. Do the best job you can. Ask questions when you don’t understand. The military is all about ‘the team’ so be part of the team.”

What do you consider some of the monumental decisions in your career that helped you get to where you are today? 

One of the most important decisions during my career was taking chances. Playing small and staying in the safe spot doesn’t get you far. Apply for a job that seems bigger than you’d planned. Speak up in meetings. Make your point of view heard. One a’ha moment for me was when I began to understand that people in command positions were people I knew. They may have had more education or time in the job, but they were just people. The longer I was in the job, the more I realized they were people just like me. That opened up the idea that I could one day be in that position, too.

Another crucial decision I made was to take advantage of the educational benefits. I finished my 185th Air Guard career and I finished my doctorate in education. The additional degrees opened the door to teaching at Western Iowa Tech, which became my next career. I taught psychology for 18 years.

Compare today to when you started your career. How is it easier or more difficult for women to succeed?

Today it’s more accepted for a female to be in charge. It’s more acceptable for a female to call out sexism. When I first became a flight commander/Second Lieutenant there was an older guy getting ready to retire. I had just become his supervisor. I was probably young enough to be his daughter. He said, ‘You’re lucky I’m retiring because I would never work for a woman.’ I smiled and said, ‘Well, then I guess we’re both lucky’.”

Could you share a moment that has been important in your career? 

One of the most memorable moments for me was on 09/11/2001. The entire upper echelon of the 185th command was in Washington DC. They were making arrangements for the 185th to move from F16 fighters to KC135 tankers. When the second plane hit the towers, all of us middle management officers got together and talked about what the unit needed to do. We started getting calls from higher level command. One moment that burned into my memory was when I was sitting in the Command Post which was unusual for me. But that day was not usual in any way. I took a call and the phone ID read “WADS.” I didn’t immediately understand who that was, and passed the

call to a pilot who was acting as part of the command in the absence of the unit commanders. WADS is the Western Air Defense part of NORAD. 

What was the highest point of your career?

The greatest part of this career is working as a team. It may sound hokey, but it is a wonderful thing  when you work with quality people, and trust each other. Sure, there were bumps, but I enjoyed my career at the 185th. I was conflicted when I retired in 2004. My twin boys were in kindergarten, and it was just too much of a struggle with my husband running a small family business and me in the military. I loved my job, especially as the Communications Flight Commander. But those were also some busy times for Scott, my husband, and the boys, between out-of-town summer camps, training sessions, and conferences. During guard drill weekend, Scott was in charge for two full days, but they had some great adventures. 

What was it that kept you going in your career?

The reason I kept going is because I enjoyed the work and my husband was supportive of my career. I had a few special mentors. My first mentor was LTC Dick Lillie. He believed in me and my ability to be a leader. He had a sense of humor, but he also expected me to work hard. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. His support was pivotal to my early career. I had other great mentors along the way, including LTC Larry Harrington and COL Tom Considine. All of my mentors at the unit were men since there were no full-time female officers at the base before me. I was the first full-time female officer on the base.

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