WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
For the first time in Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, history all three top enlisted positions on base are held by female Airmen. These women have spent their careers breaking stereotypes and restrictions put on female service members and now hold prominent positions in the Air Force.
These three women have two things in common: They are all command chiefs, and they are all different.
Getting to know U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Melvina Smith, the 509th Bomb Wing command chief.
“My mom served in the Army. I always admired her so I wanted to follow in her footsteps. She advised me to join the Air Force if I did decide to serve. [Thanks mom for the GREAT advice!]”
At the age of 18, Smith enlisted in the Air Force and joined the services career field.
In tech school, she wasn’t known as “trainee Day” or “Airman Day,” but rather “P.A.” for Proficiency Advancement, because of her unwavering dedication to her craft and desire to graduate early.
However, like many other young Airmen, Smith struggled on her journey of self-discovery and finding her place in life. Her first deployment solidified her purpose: taking care of Airmen.
Fast forward three years and she married her best friend and biggest supporter, retired Master Sgt. Derek Smith. They have three mini-Smiths: Johnell, 26, also known as U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Johnell Smith; Derek Jr. (D.J.), 17, “great big brother, very intelligent, athletic and has a great sense of humor;” and Trenten, 12, “an ambitious, energetic seventh grader.”
“They are the reason I serve. They motivate, support and inspire me to make this a great country to live and grow up in.”
Getting to know U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jessica Settle, the 131st Bomb Wing command chief
At 18 years old, Settle didn’t have a strong desire to go to college. Instead, she headed over to the local recruiter without telling anyone and enlisted as a medic in the Air Force.
Little did she know, this wasn’t an escape from school and she would still end up earning three different college degrees.
The following year, her family helped her celebrate her favorite part of Basic Military Training—graduation.
“I can remember winning a push-up competition that I had with my little brothers in the hotel.”
In the beginning, Settle missed the comforts of home and her family but she persevered, dedicating her time to studying and learning her craft and what it meant to be a part of the Air Force family.
Settle lives by the ‘three-I’ concept, which has helped shape her life and career.
“Be interested, stay informed and get involved. Anything is possible.”
Settle says she is thankful for her support system at work and at home. Her husband holds her accountable to her goals, to try things out of her comfort zone, all while taking care of the household responsibilities in order for her to fulfill her commitment to her Air Force family.
“He is my rock, and I would not be able to be in this position without him supporting me and our kids,” said Settle.
The Settles have three children, Josh, 25, Kyle, 21, and Lindsay, 15 (the little girl who inspired her to set the example that girls can do anything).
Settle strives to live by a quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“That’s what I want to be remembered for, that I genuinely cared,” said Settle.
Getting to know U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Lisa Furgeson, the 442d Fighter Wing command chief
“A recruiter came to my high school when I was a sophomore and gave a talk about joining the Air Force. I weighed my options and decided if I ever wanted to do anything with my life, my best bet was to join the Air Force. I went to see the recruiter and joined the Delayed Enlistment Program, and here I am 28 years later.”
Furgeson started as a 454X0A, Jet Engine Mechanic. In her 28 years, she has been active duty, in the Reserves, a first sergeant and a volunteer deployer to Afghanistan.
She spent her first two years stationed in Germany and said she had the time of her life traveling throughout Europe. She enjoyed work, too.
“Being female, I have smaller hands so I would get asked quite often to help out with different tasks that the men couldn’t do. That always made me smile.”
Furgeson and her husband have four teenagers, Olivia, 13, Kimberly, 14, Chad, 16, and Christian, 18.
“By staying in the military, even ‘part-time’ in the reserve, I set the example for my kids to give back to the community and our country.”
As if raising these four teenagers wasn’t enough, Furgeson has nine chickens.
“Luckily, raising the chickens isn’t as hard as raising teenagers or Airmen.”
She wants her Airmen to know: “I’ve done whatever I can do to make their Air Force a better place for them.”
This is how they got to where they are today.
While they all came from different walks of life, they share a common bond of being sisters in arms. With their combined 74 years of service, they help command the wings that make Whiteman a Total-Force Integrated team.
Integration has not always been part of the Air Force, especially for females.
In 1948, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act was passed and the U.S. Air Force became fully integrated, allowing women to serve in the military in non-combat roles. In 2016, the Air Force began to allow women in combat roles, leaving no job unattainable for female service members.
“Mom, you have to do this. Girls can do anything, remember?” said Lindsay, Settle’s daughter.
Everybody needs a premise. For these three chiefs, they all fall back on principles that led them to their success. They believe in being good Wingmen, hard work, communication, and living by the core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all you do.
“I don’t believe in chasing rank,” said Smith. “You just focus on doing the best job you can do and taking care of people and chief is just a byproduct of that.”
The Enlisted Force Structure charges chief master sergeants to epitomize excellence, professionalism, pride and competence, serving as a role model for all Airmen to emulate. This is exactly what these women strive to do every day.
“Work at your full potential every day,” said Smith. “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and continue to develop yourself personally and professionally.”
Effective leadership in the Air Force stems from being a well-rounded person and embracing the whole-Airman concept. Setting this example has earned them their positions, and now they give back in order to shape the next generation of Airmen.
“It’s the drive and determination to make positive changes making people’s lives and career’s better that will get you there,” said Furgeson. “It’s not about you, always keep that in mind. I started working harder and doing more both in and out of the military to better myself and, in turn, better the Air Force Reserve.”
“Connect by taking time to get to know our dynamic Airmen,” said Smith. “We also learn more about others when we engage in after-hour functions like intramurals and volunteer opportunities. It bridges the gap to our goal even though we came through different paths. As senior enlisted leaders, we were and will always be Airmen.”
History hasn’t always been on females’ side when it comes to females in a male-dominant career field. However, thanks to those who paved the way, the Air Force has broken that barrier, making the command chief insignia attainable for any Airman’s sleeve, male or female.
“I believe the Air Force gives you almost the most even playing field for women as far as equal pay, being judged on your character, confidence, actively having a voice and opportunities you probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Smith.
For these command chiefs, an even playing field wasn’t enough. They also wanted to shape the future and be great mentors and role models.
“I applied for the position and here I sit proving to my daughter that girls can do anything,” said Settle.