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Retired general discusses women’s roles in Air Force heritage

Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, holds up a Wonder Woman doll when discussing women in the “defense business,” or the “profession of arms,” during an address March 12 in the Team Tinker Auditorium. (Air Force photo by Darren D. Heusel)

Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, holds up a Wonder Woman doll when discussing women in the “defense business,” or the “profession of arms,” during an address March 12 in the Team Tinker Auditorium. (Air Force photo by Darren D. Heusel)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Addressing approximately 400 Airmen March 12 in the Team Tinker Auditorium, retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, told those in attendance that today's women in the military would make Wonder Woman and even her own grandmother shake their heads in disbelief at the roles they are now performing.

"The roles you women are performing today is definitely a stark contrast to the roles we were performing even 40 years ago," said General Aragon, who at times during her address held up a doll figure of Linda Carter, who portrayed Wonder Woman on the '70s hit television series and even donned a crown like Wonder Woman wore to illustrate her point.

General Aragon's appearance in the old base theater was the latest in a line of guest speakers 552nd Air Control Wing Commander Col. Jay Bickley has brought in to remind his Airmen of their impressive and proud heritage.

The general also attended a luncheon with several Tinker Airmen to celebrate Women's History Month.

General Aragon, who is the first female and the fourth Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, came up through the enlisted ranks and earned her commission through the Academy of Military Science at Knoxville, Tenn., in October 1981.

She is the first female commander of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, the first female to command a state's Air National Guard and the first female of Native American descent to become a general officer.

Her final military assignment was as the Air National Guard assistant to the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower and Personnel at the Pentagon.

Calling herself a "maverick" and saying she was often referred to as "the Airman's general," General Aragon talked about women in the "defense business," or the "profession of arms," highlighting several key leaders such as Lt. Gen. Lori Robinson, who once commanded the 552nd ACW, but now serves as vice commander of Air Combat Command.

"During the 1940s, there were a couple of bad people in the world," General Aragon said. "After Pearl Harbor, things changed dramatically...particularly for women."

Growing up, General Aragon said she had no television and the comic book super heroes at the time were mostly men. Then, along came Wonder Woman, "a comparable super hero to Rosie the Riveter," she said.

"She had this invisible aircraft...and she wore a crown that she would throw and it would come back to her, like a boomerang," General Aragon said.

She said women in the military at the time "didn't have any rank" and they mostly held down jobs that "would free up a man to fight."

My how times have changed, though, according to General Aragon, citing an incident that occurred on Dec. 5, 2005 in Iraq where four female Airmen not only saved their own lives, but the lives of two civilians following an attack on their convoy.

The general, who served in Afghanistan and directed Air Guard operations in Iraq, went on to say that the Chief of Staff of the Air Force recently showed a video featuring "women warriors." She said the Army and Marine Corps are having the most "problems" integrating women into their combat roles, "but I remind people it only takes a quarter pound of pressure to pull the trigger on a M16."

"Women are being used in the Air Force in more versatile roles," General Aragon said. "I watched women in Iraq carrying 50-pound rucks with no problem."

General Aragon said her grandmother came to Oklahoma during the land run and "there weren't any bathrooms then either."

So, what did her grandmother and women fighting in austere conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan do?

"They learned to improvise and do what you gotta do," she said. "I, personally, was more worried about being shot rather than where I was going to go to the bathroom."

General Aragon said she also likes how the services have become more "joint" in nature.

"The truth is we are all Air 'Men,'" she said. "Today, women are serving as Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines...in positions that in the past Wonder Woman or my grandmother would have never dreamed of."

General Aragon went on to say, "We all swore to prosecute our enemies and defend our nation" and that "we have great partners" who have "learned to play nice together."

Regardless of one's role, however, the general quoted scripture when asked what advice she would offer women seeking a career in today's military. "Do all you can with all your heart, strength, mind and soul," she said, "whether as an administrative officer or leading a convoy."

The general did admit, though, the way military members prosecute today's wars and combat their adversaries "is much different than at any other time in our nation's history and you do it better than anyone in the world."

She added that "the men and women of Oklahoma appreciate what you do."

"Thirty-seven years ago, women were limited to just 2 percent of the force," General Aragon said. "Today, the only limits exist in our hearts and minds."

The general said she decided to join the military, when at 30 years old and a single mother of two young girls, she had to make a financial decision to support her family.

"I struggled with the decision, but joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard to be able to sustain us," she said. "It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I gained strength from the professional, physical and personal development and education that the United States Air Force offered me."

General Aragon, a native of Dale, Okla., said the opportunities she was given were invaluable.

"I have been blessed to engage in the lives of so many Americans and to touch the face of humanity around the world," she said. "I have been given so much through this journey that began with a desperate step to save my children."

The general closed by showing a video entitled "Proud to be an American" and received a standing ovation at its conclusion.