Former Air War College student, instructor joins women commanding in combat

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Tech. Sgt. John Kelley, 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, shows a fuels dispatch log to Col. Patricia Searcy, 455th Expeditionary Mission Support Group commander.  The log includes a number of Airmen who have pumped more than one million gallons of fuel during their deployment.  Colonel Searcy, part of a growing number of deployed women in leadership positions, said the hard work and dedication of the ELRS fuels team is reflected in Airmen across the EMSG. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez/Released)

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Tech. Sgt. John Kelley, 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, shows a fuels dispatch log to Col. Patricia Searcy, 455th Expeditionary Mission Support Group commander. The log includes a number of Airmen who have pumped more than one million gallons of fuel during their deployment. Colonel Searcy, part of a growing number of deployed women in leadership positions, said the hard work and dedication of the ELRS fuels team is reflected in Airmen across the EMSG. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez)

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Decades ago, women were limited in the capacity they could serve in the armed forces. Once admitted into the regular armed forces, women were barred from combat roles. Today is different. While women still cannot serve in combat roles such as Pararescue and combat controllers in the Air Force, they are becoming more and more present in combat environments today - many of them in command positions.

When Air Force Col. Patricia Searcy, a former student and instructor of International Security Studies at Air War College, took command of the 455th Expeditionary Mission Support Group in July, she joined three other women in key leadership roles at the group level here - Air Force Col. Carol Timmons, 455th Expeditionary Operations Group deputy commander; Air Force Lt. Col. Dawn Keasley, 455th EMSG deputy commander; and Air Force Lt. Col. Helen Brasher, 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Group deputy commander.

"When I first joined in 1977, women were just being allowed to fly airplanes, but not any aircraft that had a combat mission," said Colonel Timmons, a native of New Castle, Del. "By not being allowed in combat billets, women did not break through the glass ceiling of higher command for a long period."

Exemplary performance and professionalism from Airmen, and Airwomen, through the decades opened up more opportunities for women in combat and in command.

"It seems a greater percentage of women are in command positions," said Colonel Searcy, who has commanded at the squadron and deputy group level and deployed five previous times. "I believe our Air Force leadership selects those individuals with the right talents and those who are best suited for command and deputy command. I look at people based on their merits and expect others do the same."

She continued to say that it shouldn't matter that women are in command more, other than to illustrate how times have changed.

"Things have definitely changed for women in the service since I joined ... there are many more [Air Force Specialty Codes] and opportunities for women now," said Colonel Brasher, who has been a squadron commander three times, one of which was in Iraq. "For me personally, I've been lucky. I've always been treated with respect and dignity and I've never felt that I was looked upon differently because I am a woman. I've served in a predominantly male career field - Aircraft and Munitions Maintenance - but I've had the same opportunities as my male counterparts."

Although Colonel Keasley recently redeployed, she and Colonel Searcy became the first women to command a group together at Bagram - a historical milestone that neither of them had considered.

"Honestly, the thought didn't occur to me. We have a job to do and people we're responsible for, which doesn't change because of the gender of who is at the helm," Colonel Keasley said. "The legacy of our leadership is better represented by the group's effectiveness at accomplishing and enabling the wing's mission, and in the development and successes of our people."

As part of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing leadership team, Colonel Searcy, Colonel Timmons and Colonel Brasher play a large role in accomplishing the wing's mission - providing aerial combat support to U.S. and coalition forces operating in the Afghanistan Theater of Operations.

"In the Maintenance Group, none of us are on the 'front lines,' but those who are rely on us daily. From the aircrew that strap into our aircraft to the guys on the ground outside the wire, they rely on the airpower we help to provide," said Colonel Brasher, a native of Plattsburgh, N.Y. "We try very hard to instill in every maintainer that what they do counts every single day, regardless of the AFSC. Whether it's the sheet metal technician who repairs a crack or the (aerospace ground equipment) mechanic who delivers a hydraulic mule or the ammo troop who builds the bomb that the loaders load, everyone plays a vital role in ensuring bombs hit their targets, supplies, equipment and people are airlifted/airdropped as required, and we have helicopters poised to provide combat search and rescue."

The EMSG is essential in providing the support necessary to sustain the warfighting effort.

"The wing's motto is 'Fighting Terror, Building Peace,'" said Colonel Searcy, a native of Culpeper, Va. "The EMSG directly supports the 'Fighting Terror' piece through the civil engineer's project design and management on improvements on the runway, taxiways and ramps; the security forces' efforts to protect the airfield; and the logistics efforts to keep cargo and passengers flowing to destinations smoothly. But we probably spend equal or even more time on 'Building Peace' in the EMSG by infusing money into the local economy."

"This is the great example of synergy," explained Colonel Timmons. "We have every branch of the Armed Forces as well as coalition troops and local nationals; all working together to defeat the terrorists and to make this country capable of defending itself."

Colonel Timmons went on to say every unique mission flown is directly responsible for making the long term goal of Afghan independence and defeating the terrorist happen.

"We provide capabilities to the commanders in the field that wins battles and saves lives," she said. "We evacuate the wounded and injured. The OG is the lifeline for the troops in the field."

Each just a few months into their one-year deployment, Colonel Searcy and Colonel Brasher are looking into the future and what they can do to help the mission here.

"In my change of command speech I talked about 'making it better for the next guy,'" Colonel Searcy said. "We not only need to accomplish the day-to-day missions but need to plan ahead so improvements are in place for the next rotations. That is a heavy responsibility from my perspective because the pace is fierce for those of us in the support areas."

"In my position I hope that we can continue to meet our goal of 100 percent mission effectiveness which means, we don't miss one (air tasking order) line due to maintenance," added Colonel Brasher. "There's too much at stake for those on the 'front lines' for maintenance to not deliver aircraft as required."

Both commanders said they are honored to serve with the men and women in their respective groups and hope those Airmen are proud of what they do everyday because each Airman is vital in accomplishing the mission.

As Colonel Timmons wraps up her fifth deployment, she reflects on what has been an "outstanding and great learning experience."

"I have really had the honor to be directly involved with the air war here in Afghanistan," she said. "The personnel make the deployment; everyone has been very professional and outstanding at what they do. I am honored to work with them and to share the success they are responsible for making happen during this rotation. Everyone here represents the best America has to offer in defense of our country."