Women’s History Month: AF Academy’s director of staff says alma mater was ‘right place at the right time’

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden

U.S. AIR FORCE ACAEMY, Colo. – A top decision maker at the U.S. Air Force Academy spoke about the accomplishments of women across the military and being one of the school’s first women to walk across its graduation stage.

Gail Colvin, director of the Academy’s headquarters staff, a position she’s held for more than 10 years, and a retired colonel with 30 years of military service, was the keynote speaker at the Women’s History Month Lunch, March 18. Colvin said she enthusiastically endorses Women’s History Month and all DOD special observances.

“I look forward to every single one,” she said. “I’m amazed by the things I learn about the people who built this country, and find that across these observances there is a connecting thread: the contributions [of women] are always accompanied by inspiring accounts of sacrifice and overcoming adversity.”

As director, Colvin oversees broad administrative policies, budget and organizational functions for the Academy. The Brooklyn, New York, native graduated from the Academy in 1980 – the first class to include women – less than five years after President Ford signed a Public Law in October 1975 allowing women to attend U.S. service academies. Despite the stride in gender parity this law represented, there was still a cultural reluctance to accept women, let alone women who were minorities, into these academies, Colvin said.

“They didn’t know what to do with us,” she said with a laugh.

In 1976, encouragement for women at the Academy was far from universal.

“Quite frankly, there were those who supported women being here and those who didn’t,” Colvin said, recalling the challenges of being judged as a Black woman. “No two women in my class were alike. We represented the full spectrum [of femininity]. No matter where we fell on the spectrum, we were critiqued by someone for ‘why’ we came to the academy, how we talked, our clothes, the pitch of our voice, our physique. For me, it was the curl of my natural hair and there were those who would call me the ‘N’ and the ‘B’ words.”

Despite the challenges, the retired colonel said the Academy was the “right place at the right time” for her, and the evolution of acceptance, gender parity and promotions of women to command positions in the DOD has made the U.S. stronger. During her presentation, Colvin shared several lessons she learned as a woman and officer, lessons she said can help women leaders create an inclusive culture for all Airmen while knowing when to adjust their leadership style to better accommodate a mission.

“Leaders have to adapt to the demands of different missions and environments and understand the people we lead – what motivates them, how they contribute to the mission and how to communicate with them – so that we recognize and leverage their talent to get the job done,” she said.

Colvin was often the only woman “in the room” during her military career. As a young officer, she concentrated on her job performance to the point of exhaustion, she said, working late at night and struggling to balance her military duties with her family responsibilities. She encouraged all Airmen to ask for help and request their leadership prioritize their work load.

“I teared up when she said that,” said Tech. Sgt. Mindy Bolton, the Academy command chief’s executive assistant. Bolton has been an enlisted Airman for 14 years and is also a wife and mother. “It struck a chord in me when Ms. Colvin described trying to do everything at once – excelling at work and being an active, involved mother and wife. Ms. Colvin explained that we’re able to do more than we can think we can handle but need to be honest, efficient and deliberate with our time,” she said.

Right Here in This Room
Colvin expressed her appreciation for the DOD’s diversity and inclusion programs, calling diversity a “necessity” for the U.S. military and society, and a “clear strength of our nation.”

Regardless of their heritage, nationality or sexual orientation, Colvin said, women have always been part of the U.S.’s strength.

“When we think about iconic women leaders we admire, remember, these women were once in your shoes,” she said. “As we celebrate Women’s History Month and focus on the triumphs of the past, we must look to the limitless potential that lies ahead. It is right here in this room,” she said, pointing to the women in the audience.

Bolton said Colvin is an iconic leader who carries a foundational level of knowledge benefitting all staff and faculty, including Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the Academy’s superintendent.

“She’s sharp and warm,” said Bolton, who shares space in the Academy’s headquarters’ office with her director. “The amount of experience she has amazes me and knowing what she has accomplished and overcome during her career is inspiring. She’s a role model.”

Colvin encouraged the women in the room to use their voices to help their commanders make inclusive decision, and said she discovered the power of her voice at command-level meetings where leaders sometimes advocated for policies without considered how these decisions would affect all Airmen.

“The lesson here is to make sure people focus on the right issues,” she said.

Colvin ended her presentation with a “big thank you” to the women attending the lunch and the Women’s History Month team for organizing the event.

“I appreciate the invitation to speak to you today,” she said. “I an incredibly honored but also humbled when I think of all the trailblazing women and men I look up to, from across the generations, who made my career possible.”