web analytics

Categorized | Featured, News

CS grad Air Force’s only female deployed command chief

CS grad Air Force’s only female deployed command chief

She credits small town upbringing, past experience for successful career

by Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

SOUTHWEST ASIA — In early 1982, Cedar Springs, Mich., had a population of just over 2,600 people. Among them was 20-year-old Suzan Simmons, destined to become Chief Master Sergeant Suzan Sangster. In this typical “small town U.S.A.” atmosphere, Chief Sangster found herself surrounded by family and friends who wished her well in whatever she chose to do with her life.

Chief Master Sgt. Suzan K. Sangster, command chief master sergeant for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia, stops for a photo prior to attending a military ball on Nov. 5, 2009. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Charles Larkin Sr./Released)

So what would she do with her life? That was a question Chief Sangster, the command chief master sergeant for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia, pondered for several years after graduating from Cedar Springs High School.

Chief Sangster said she first tried going to college at Michigan State University, however she “enjoyed college a little too much” and her grades reflected it. So what’s next? What followed included stints as a ski instructor in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and working numerous jobs, including one at her aunt and uncle’s store in Chicago. She said she was just floating from “job to job.”

“It was my mom who finally said, ‘Why don’t you think about joining the military?’” Chief Sangster said. “You have to understand, back in 1982, it was not necessarily what women did. My mom encouraged me to, ‘Try it and see what you think.’ So, my 21st birthday was my first day of basic training.”

Now, more than 27 years later, Chief Sangster finds herself as the top enlisted leader for more than 1,900 people assigned to four groups and 12 squadrons for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. She’s also the Air Force’s only female wing command chief in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

The chief’s career started off with a year of training at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif. There, she trained and became a linguist fluent in the basic Chinese Mandarin language. From there her career as a linguist began to meld into the Air Force intelligence career field. Her eventual positions included voice systems operator, cryptologic linguist and either noncommissioned officer-in-charge or superintendent of nearly a dozen intelligence-based offices and units through the years.

Family ties to the military

Chief Master Sgt. Suzan K. Sangster (right), command chief master sergeant for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia, is pictured with her mother, Sandra Weiser, during a trip to China before she deployed to Southwest Asia. Chief Sangster credits her mother as one of her inspirations to join the Air Force in 1982. (Courtesy Photo)

Chief Master Sgt. Suzan K. Sangster (right), command chief master sergeant for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia, is pictured with her mother, Sandra Weiser, during a trip to China before she deployed to Southwest Asia. Chief Sangster credits her mother as one of her inspirations to join the Air Force in 1982. (Courtesy Photo)

Before she even joined the Air Force, Chief Sangster recalled how some members of her extended family paved a path of military service.

“My grand-uncle, Frank Gilbert, served in World War I,” Chief Sangster said. “He would tell us a few stories when I was a little girl. He didn’t talk about it a lot… he felt they were expected to go out and do what they did (without question).

“He would tell stories about being very careful while diving into trenches,” Chief Sangster said. “He said you either had to have a mask on or have checked the trench, otherwise you might end up like some of his men who died from mustard gas.”

Chief Sangster had another grand-uncle, Lawrence Simmons, who fought and died in World War II. Also, she had two cousins who graduated from West Point, became officers, and fought in Operation Desert Storm as tank commanders. Furthermore, she said her brother, retired Lt. Col. Ron Simmons, served 20 years in the Air Force as a C-141 Starlifter and C-17 Globemaster III pilot. He completed his Air Force career at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., flying in what the chief called the “prestigious” 99th Airlift Squadron. The 99th AS provided key federal official travel to include the vice president and the president’s cabinet.

“And then there is me—still serving today,” the chief added.

Describing intel

Through her experience, Chief Sangster said the intelligence career field brings success of the mission by providing the right critical information at the right time. She said intelligence Airmen often have to be someone like herself—a linguist—who needs to translate foreign words into meaningful information.

“I could provide all kinds of technical speak and a ton of data, but if they do not receive something that is relevant to them, I haven’t helped them,” Chief Sangster said. “So like a linguist, intelligence Airmen have to translate the ‘languages’ of many career fields to give teammates information needed to be successful. However this isn’t just confined to intelligence Airman, understanding how your job fits is the key to being successful.”

Deployments offer world perspective

In addition to serving two one-year remote tours to Korea, Chief Sangster has deployed now three times supporting Operations Desert Calm, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. She said her early experience in the Far East didn’t exactly prepare her for operations in the Middle East, but what deployments do for all Airmen is offer a broader perspective of the world.

“My first deployment was in Saudi Arabia back in 1996,” Chief Sangster said. “That’s when we were in Riyadh and we still were in Eskan Village. You have to realize that my world was very specific to the Far East because I was a Chinese linguist.

“So now all of the sudden, in the middle of all of that upbringing, I’m placed in the Middle East in a completely different environment,” the chief said. “That experience forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn a new adversary’s TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) in order to support the warfighter. To me, it was a great opportunity to learn about a different world culture and how to interact.”

Chief Sangster also deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center at another Southwest Asia base. While there, she was in charge of hundreds of intelligence Airmen across the entire CENTCOM area of responsibility.

“Deployments certainly gave me a better understanding of what our Airmen have experienced,” she said.

Proud to be with the 380th

As the command chief for the 380th AEW for the past six months, Chief Sangster has learned a great deal as she says, “from everyone.” She said the enlisted Airman’s contribution to the success of the wing’s mission is noticed by all of the wing leadership.

“The enlisted corps, certainly, is the backbone of any successful mission,” Chief Sangster said. “Here, we are blessed to have a phenomenal leadership team from [Brig.] General [Bryan J.] Benson, across all the groups and the vice commander—we just couldn’t ask for a more dedicated leadership team. They support our Airmen allowing them to execute our tasked mission on a daily basis.”

“I’m just in awe,” Chief Sangster said. “There is not a day that goes by where I don’t learn something new about the mission from the Airmen who are here.”

On being a role model

Airmen who make it to the chief master sergeant rank, like Chief Sangster, might not tell you outright they are role models for other Airmen to learn from and emulate. When asked if she considers herself a role model, the chief modestly agreed, but also said she can especially relate to women who are in the military.

“There are few experiences that women can deal with that I haven’t experienced,” Chief Sangster said. “I came into the military single. I got married out of tech school. I had a child in the military. I went through a divorce and lived life as a single parent.

“I’ve been in dire straits as far as finances,” she said. “All those things that Airmen experience, I get it and I understand it. That makes it easier to relate to things they are going through. I like to think the experiences I’ve had help me talk Airmen through the things they’re struggling with and give them the benefit of my experience.”

With that experience and in her current duty as a command chief, Chief Sangster said she can offer one great piece of advice to all Airmen.

“Never turn down an opportunity,” Chief Sangster said. “If you keep your head up and you’re always looking around and you do your job well, there are always going to be opportunities. It will force you out of your comfort zone and it will grow you and develop you as an Airman. Take those opportunities and grow.”

Proud of all Airmen today

Chief Master Sgt. Suzan K. Sangster, command chief master sergeant for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, greets members of the wing’s volunteer honor guard Jan. 14, 2009, at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia. Chief Sangster is a 27-year veteran of the Air Force and is the Air Force’s only female command chief master sergeant serving in a deployed AEW in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. Chief Sangster’s hometown is Cedar Springs, Mich. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol/Released)

Chief Master Sgt. Suzan K. Sangster, command chief master sergeant for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, greets members of the wing’s volunteer honor guard Jan. 14, 2009, at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia. Chief Sangster is a 27-year veteran of the Air Force and is the Air Force’s only female command chief master sergeant serving in a deployed AEW in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. Chief Sangster’s hometown is Cedar Springs, Mich. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol/Released)

Chief Sangster said she believes in the words of the Airman’s Creed. If you ask her, she’ll tell you she could “write a speech about every line.” She also said the creed demonstrates the caliber of Airmen serving today.

“Airmen now are technologically saavy,” Chief Sangster said. “They are so brilliant. But given all of that, they are truly some the most amazing patriots that our generation has seen. Similar to those who served in World War I and World War II, they are entering the United States Air Force and the service at a time of war.

“There is no mistake out there,” she said. “It may not be a part of the headlines or it may not be a part of the everyday dialogue that goes on TV, but they are raising their hand to defend the Constitution during a time of war. What an incredible thing to do.”

Family, friends keep her going

Chief Sangster said the success she’s had in the military is due to the love and support of her family and friends.

“My husband, Dan Sangster, is a 20-year Air Force veteran who continues to serve as a government employee at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C.,” the chief said. “We always supported one another through our deployments and separations. The key to our success is to always laugh and never go to bed angry.”

The chief has three sons, Chris, John and Ryan, who she says are all successful young men. “Each of my boys have found their ‘niche’ in life,” she said. “They are happy—what more can a mother ask for?”

While some may find it difficult to make friends, Chief Sangster added that she believes friends made in the military are friends for life. “Your military friends get it. They understand deployments, multiple moves and know you may not call or write every day, but when you do you pick up right where you left off.”

Making her hometown proud

There’s no doubt that a person can look back at Chief Sangster’s career and call it a successful one. The chief, even now, remembers with fondness how her hometown of Cedar Springs played a role in the life she’s led.

“I was blessed with a childhood that was very well settled,” Chief Sangster said. “I was born and raised in the same small town…and family—the whole bit.”

Cedar Springs now has more than 3,000 people—a few hundred more since Chief Sangster left to join the Air Force. Maybe among them, there is another 20-year-old woman looking to make her way in the world before she turns 21. Chief Sangster is living proof that something like that can come true.

This article ran on January 15, 2010 on the Official Website of 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.

This post was written by:

- who has written 17439 posts on Cedar Springs Post Newspaper.


Contact the author

Comments are closed.

advert
Advertising Rates Brochure
Kent County Credit Union
Cedar Car Co
Dewys Manufacturing
Watson Rockford
Ray Winnie

Archives

Get Your Copy of The Cedar Springs Post for just $40 a year!