In Formation: One Woman?s Rise Through the Ranks of the U.S. Air Force

In Formation: One Woman?s Rise Through the Ranks of the U.S. Air Force

by Cheryl Dietrich


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“In 1979 I was a Presbyterian minister, a hospital chaplain, and a pacifist. In 1980, I left the church and joined the Air Force. The day I showed up at the recruiter's office, I was twenty-eight, under-exercised, a wimp, and extraordinarily ignorant of the military. I intended it to be a stopgap measure while I figured out what to do next, but I never got bored.”

When Cheryl Dietrich joined the US Air Force, she began a transformation from overweight introvert and military neophyte into one of the key personnel redesigning the structure of the Air Force within the Pentagon. In this stirring and revelatory memoir, Cheryl—one of only a hundred female officers of colonel rank or higher—explains what it takes to stay the course, overcome male domination issues, break the glass ceiling more than once, and deal with the political issues facing the Pentagon.

In Formation also covers subjects specific to military life: what it is like to be a squadron commander; to lead a NATO division, mobility exercises, and wartime exercises in gas mask and chem gear; and to deploy with NATO to war-torn Croatia; the book also describes a fatal air show disaster. It covers the basic experiences of relationships in the military. From the mundane to the heroic, this is a story about finding within oneself the kernels of courage that define the warrior—female or male.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631580673
Publisher: Yucca
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Cheryl Dietrich spent twenty years in the U.S. Air Force. After she rose to the rank of squadron commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, she became the executive officer for the 86th Fighter Wing, commanded the Mission Support Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, and, at the Pentagon, developed plans sent to Congress for the Air Force’s personnel drawdown. She passed away in early 2015.

Read an Excerpt



In the flat country of South Texas, dusk turns to night like someone hit a light switch. One moment I had been hurrying after Bronson's stocky figure twenty feet ahead. Then suddenly, she faded into a scrambling shape in the darkness. I slowed and worked my way carefully through the scrub. I could hear her breath coming out in ragged pants, her frantic words, "Got to get out, get out of here, got to get out." She didn't seem to notice me following her. When I reached out and touched her arm, she jumped, then stopped. I could feel her trembling.

"It's okay," I said. "It's just me — OT Duncan. I'm in your squadron." Frantically I tried to remember her first name. Something with an a at the end. Martha, no, Elena, Darla, Linda — Brenda, that's it! "Brenda, I'm Cheryl. What's going on? Hey, I know we've all had times when we wanted to get out of this place, but there are easier ways, you know."

I was just trying to lighten things up, but she pulled away and started walking, so swiftly I could barely keep up. She mumbled something.


"Fence. Can't go out the gate. They'll stop me. Got to get to the fence."

"How will you get out? The fence is high."

"Climb. Got to get out. Can't breathe."

She slowed down as I kept her talking, asking her how she would get over the fence, where she would go. Her replies were mainly a repetition of "got to get out." Gradually I turned our steps so we were walking just outside the perimeter of light that spilled out of the Officer Training School barracks windows. When she realized where we were, she started to shy away.

"It's okay." I said. "We don't have to go inside. I'm tired. Are you tired? Let's go sit over here in the dark."

I led her to a low wall. I kept talking, all the while scanning the driveway leading up to the building, looking for someone to arrive or something to happen. Someone or something to rescue me from what felt like a ton of responsibility. I was not ready for this. What would I do if she made a dart across the dark fields, headed for the fence?

Just fifteen minutes ago I'd gotten a note to go see another officer trainee I worked with. She had Bronson in her barracks room, trying to calm her down. Bronson's eyes darted frantically in every direction. Her hands moved up to pull her hair, then release it. She opened and closed her fists, grabbed at her neck as if to push some blockage out of her throat. She heaved harsh breaths, muttering low, "Got to get out," over and over. We asked her what was wrong but got nothing except, "Got to get out. Can't breathe. Got to get out." Eventually, she settled down a little and stood there panting, looking down at the floor.

My friend looked at Brenda, then at me. She cleared her throat. "I almost forgot. I need to go make that phone call I was telling you about."

"Of course," I said. "Go on. I'll stay here and chat with OT Bronson."

At that moment, Bronson had pushed me aside and took off. She ran down the corridor, through the outside door and into the night, while we stood gaping after her. "Go on," I said. "I'll stay with her, while you get help."

So I had no one to blame but myself that I was sitting in the dark with a desperate, frantic woman I didn't even know. I started talking about harmless subjects. I asked her about her family. She talked about her brother. I asked her about her boyfriends, her favorite movies, anything to distract her attention from the despair inside her till she was someplace safe (till I was someplace safe). I didn't hear anything she said. My ears strained to catch the sound of a motor, maybe even a siren. We sat there for perhaps half an hour or perhaps through an eternal night — we are, I'm convinced, still sitting there somewhere in the space-time continuum.

I felt a breeze ruffling my hair, cooling after the heat of the day. I couldn't enjoy it, not with my body so tight with tension, my mind on edge. I was outside, alone with a woman who could turn violent at any minute. Not to mention — wait! Wind in my hair. Shit, no hat. I'm outside and I'm not wearing a hat. Just twelve weeks ago that would have meant nothing to me, but now it felt like the worst part of the whole mess. I felt naked. No hat no hat no hat pulsed in me like a heartbeat. Just days away from commissioning, and I'd committed one of the cardinal sins of Officer Training School.

An ambulance slid into view, no flashing lights, no siren. It pulled up in front of the building, a car behind it. "We're over here," I yelled. Brenda started. I touched her arm, gently but prepared to grab if she started to run. "It's okay. They're here to help you get out."

A man in medical whites walked toward us, his voice reassuringly calm. "Hey, Brenda. I'm Lou. Let us help you. Okay?"

She was breathing heavily and seemed poised for flight. But he approached her with such quiet confidence, I could feel her body relax. Something inside her melted, and she started to cry.

"You go ahead and cry all you want, honey." He took her arm and led her away.

I felt dizzy and slumped back down on the wall, only to jump up when I realized a captain was standing in front of me. I saluted him and rushed to explain. "I'm sorry I'm not wearing a hat, sir. I had to run out —"

He cut me off with an impatient wave of his hand. "Doesn't matter. Go back in. You all did good work tonight. I'll let your commander know."

"What will happen to OT Bronson?"

"She'll go to the psych ward at Wilford Hall, then we'll see."

Later I lay awake listening to my roommates, one lightly snoring, the other muttering in her sleep, the creaking of iron bedsteads as their bodies shifted. My mind reeled with fragments from the night's events: Brenda's panic, the solitary dark and the light breeze, the overwhelming sense of responsibility, the nakedness of my uncovered head.

I had known the panic and suffocation Brenda felt. But I had experienced them in lonely nights of prayer and tears, kneeling on the floor of a silent apartment, smothering in the demanding confines of faith. So I understood what could make a person just cut and run. But what Brenda ran from, I ran to. The U.S. Air Force as refuge.

A year earlier, I had been kneeling in the narrow alcove that served as my living room. "Help me, O Lord, for my eyes have grown sick of their weeping." I repeated it over and over with the vague sense that I was quoting from a Psalm. An ancient agony sounded in my plea. I was weary. My body longed for sleep, but my spirit starved for ... what? Relief? Comfort? Maybe just recognition.

I had been an ordained Presbyterian minister for less than a year, but this was not the first midnight to find me here after a particularly bad day at the hospital. A day trying to comfort parents who'd been told there was no more the doctors could do for their little girl. Perhaps crying with the young wife, now widowed mother, whose husband had keeled over from a heart attack, no warnings, no previous signs. Perhaps it was an accident victim or the delivery of a dead baby. Any of a number of cruelties life dishes out, to which I, as a chaplain, was supposed to bring the assurance of a loving God.

It's normal to be angry with God, to have doubts even. But I had never doubted, not even then, not even now. God exists, no question about it in my mind. We can't truly understand the mysteries inside ourselves, much less the mysteries of the universe. And God, by definition, is beyond our knowing, a being we only comprehend through metaphor. The warmest of these is God as parent: divine Father, great Mother.

"Help me, Father." I sat back on my heels, gulping in breaths of air, groping for a tissue. I should go back to bed, I thought. Tomorrow morning comes too early.

But I continued to sit there, trying to calm myself, stop the tears, steady my breath so the hiccups that threatened would settle down. As I rhythmically inhaled and exhaled, I began to think of my mother. I'd battled a bad sinus infection earlier that spring. Some days it felt like knives jabbing into my head, my cheeks, my teeth. One particularly bad Friday afternoon, I called her. "I want my mommy," I said and laughed to show I was being facetious. Except I wasn't. She heard the need underneath my silly words and told me to come home.

I'd had just enough strength that afternoon to drive the hour from my apartment in Dayton to my mother and stepfather's house in Cincinnati. Mom tucked me into bed, brought me tea, sat and chatted quietly while I dozed off and on. She couldn't make my misery go away but she comforted me, made it possible for me to bear the pain and go back to work on Monday.

So as I sat crying and praying on the floor that night — the last night I would do so — I thought of my mother's love, her acceptance, her open arms. I want my mommy. It was as simple as that. My mother would never let me go through torment without at least a word of comfort. The tears that had been flowing steadily for months dried suddenly and a new question occurred to me. Was the God I'd believed in all my life a worse parent than my lovely but flawed mortal mother?

"I know about Jesus dying on the cross for me," I said aloud. "But that was almost two thousand years ago. What have you done for me lately?"

I argued with God that night, rudely, roughly, with a "last chance, bucko" attitude. I threw down angry challenges. I was irreverent, to say the least, surly, poking and prodding at a divinity I wanted to believe in. I stopped my ravings periodically to listen for a whisper of recognition, to look for a sign that God knew I was there, to smell the air for a whiff of ethereal essence blooming in my stale, smoky apartment. But I heard, I saw, I smelled and sensed nothing. Nothing at all.

I did not lose my faith. I discarded it, shed it like a snake does her skin, with pain and out of necessity. It may still linger there in my Dayton apartment. I never stopped believing in God. I just stopped believing that faith mattered. The dream was gone — not to mention the career.

I had a contract to fulfill at the hospital, where they had no problem with an apostate chaplain as long as I showed up for work on time. I used those months to explore my options. It was the late seventies, and the world had cracked wide open for women. I had lots of choices but no idea what I wanted to do — a situation both scary and exhilarating.

In seminary, my friends and I used to joke, "Well, if the ministry doesn't work out, we can always join the Army." Liberal pacifists that we were, we cracked up at the absurdity of the notion. Now the stale old joke kept buzzing around me like an annoying fly that I swatted at absently, as I considered the options open to me.

What did I want? I wanted to travel. I wanted to get out of Ohio, to see the world. I wanted Greek temples and Ayers Rock and herds of zebras running on an African plain. I wanted Carnival in Rio, the accordions of Paris, the beer of Germany. India, Japan, Argentina, Israel, Lebanon. I pulled out maps of the world and slobbered over them like pornography. I tried to talk a friend into going with me.

"Around the world," I said. "Stopping wherever we want, as long as we want, getting jobs, just enough to pay the way." She refused politely, but her voice hinted that I'd gone mad. I had the dream but not the courage to go by myself.

The fly buzzing around me whispered, "In the military, you could travel."

Just four years, that was the commitment for a commission — time to save a little money and figure out what I really wanted to do. I totted the advantages up: an opportunity to travel, decent pay, medical benefits, an opportunity to travel, no one asking how many words a minute I could type, someone else making decisions for me. Did I mention travel?

Disadvantages: Joining the military-industrial complex. Becoming part of the war machine. Oh, and calisthenics, marching, all that saluting, the uniforms.

The voice of pacifism nagged in my brain, so I cobbled together a rationalization to quiet it. Like it or not, war was a reality, and the military as necessary as the local police force or the security guard at the bank. Who was I to admit the need for defense but disdain the defender? Wasn't it a citizen's duty to shoulder a share of the dirty work? And after all, it would just be for four years. Strains of "You're in the Army Now" began playing in my head.

The Army did not want me. I'd called almost on a lark, daring myself. The first question the recruiter asked was how old I was. When I answered, "Twenty-eight," I was told brusquely I was too old. The same thing happened with the Navy. After that second refusal, I dialed the Air Force right away just so I could say I'd done the rounds. (I never even considered the Marines; I was so obviously not one.)

"Hello, I'm Cheryl Duncan. I'm calling for information about getting a commission."

The Air Force recruiter's first question was, "How old are you?"

It was almost a relief to hear it. "Twenty-eight."

"Let's make an appointment for you to come see me."

So a year after my ordination, I was sitting in front of an Air Force recruiter fielding his questions with an ease that built my confidence. I could see a look dawning in his eyes, which I interpreted to mean: This person is officer material. He was probably just giving thanks for finding a live one. He handed me a lengthy questionnaire to take home and fill out.

"Make sure," the sergeant warned me, "that you fill it out properly the first time. You can't come back and change answers later. These questions especially." He turned to a page that had to do with drugs. Any illegal drug usage disqualified an officer candidate. "I knew a guy who answered no to all these, then later, at a security clearance interview he admitted he'd smoked pot. They kicked him out for falsifying a government document." He gave me a look I had no trouble translating: If you have to lie on this form, make sure you're prepared to stick to that lie forever.

That evening, I lit a cigarette and sat down with the questionnaire. I painstakingly filled out the personal information requested, name, date and place of birth; made my way through a tedious list of every school I'd ever gone to, every job I'd ever had; penciled in some potential references; then came to the page that would disqualify me.

I'd been a teenager in the sixties. I'd never been into drugs but sure, I'd tried pot. Did I want to join an organization that preferred to be lied to? I picked up my pen and marked the block for "Experimenter." In the Remarks section, I wrote, "Anyone who went to college in the late sixties and says they didn't try pot is lying." The Air Force could decide whether I belonged or not.

My application was approved without comment. I received an Officer Training School (OTS) date several months away.

When I told my mother I'd decided to join the Air Force, "Oh, Cheryl," was all she said, though she achieved a strained smile to go with her worried look. I knew what the look meant: Here's something else for Cheryl to fail at. Why can't she just settle down and do something normal? Later she handed me a brochure about a school for executive secretaries. "Just thought you might be interested," she said. "You know you can make good money at that level." I set the brochure down without reading it.

My stepfather Bob's reaction was more to the point. He arranged for an Air Force captain, the daughter of one of his coworkers, to come to dinner. Linda was attending law school in Cincinnati at the time. When she and her husband walked into my parents' house, she wore a pregnancy smock and a big grin that drew me to her immediately.

In the thirty years since we met, Linda has barely changed. She still has a ruddy complexion, surrounded by frizzy, dirty-blonde hair fighting to go free, intelligent blue-gray eyes, and a deep dimple set askew in one cheek, which gives her face a rakish imbalance. She looks comfortable and soft, the image of a cozy mother. She takes in strays routinely — I was one of them. But under all that nonthreatening nurturance are a razor-sharp brain charged with energy and integrity, a wicked sense of humor, and a strict adherence to justice. She also tells a great story.

That night at my parents' house, she spun tales of the Air Force like Scheherazade. Comedy was her forte, perhaps as a needed foil for her sober law studies. She talked about the absurdities of a military life and its hardships, the constant niggling trivialities and the big inspiring moments. With her elastic face and lively voice, she called up pompous colonels, demanding drill sergeants, meek officer trainees. My parents' dining room teemed with characters she brought to life. We all leaned into her words, fascinated by the vivid world she described.

She also talked seriously about what life was like for women in the Air Force and how it had changed. She had come up through the ranks in tougher days. Like many enlisted members, she'd gotten her bachelor's degree in night school. She then applied for and was accepted into OTS, then later into the Funded Legal Education Program.


Excerpted from "In Formation"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Cheryl Dietrich.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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