From adversity came leadership

Col. (Retired) Regine Aune; standing left; interacts with members of Twenty-Fifth Air Force as the guest speaker for the Women’s History Month capstone event March 28. Col. Aune; a nurse and educator throughout her career; was also a survivor of the first Operation Babylift flight from Vietnam in April of 1975. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Guido Locati; 25 AF/PA)

Col. (Retired) Regine Aune; standing left; interacts with members of Twenty-Fifth Air Force as the guest speaker for the Women’s History Month capstone event March 28. Col. Aune; a nurse and educator throughout her career; was also a survivor of the first Operation Babylift flight from Vietnam in April of 1975. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Guido Locati; 25 AF/PA)

Lt. Col. (retired) David Shultz, right, stands with the 25 AF volunteers who modeled U.S. Air Force women’s vintage uniforms during the Women’s History Month event March 28. Shultz owns and curates the uniforms as part of his Air Force heritage exhibit, some of which is displayed at the Texas Air Museum on Stinson Field, San Antonio, Texas. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Guido Locati, 25 AF/PA)

Lt. Col. (retired) David Shultz, right, stands with the 25 AF volunteers who modeled U.S. Air Force women’s vintage uniforms during the Women’s History Month event March 28. Shultz owns and curates the uniforms as part of his Air Force heritage exhibit, some of which is displayed at the Texas Air Museum on Stinson Field, San Antonio, Texas. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Guido Locati, 25 AF/PA)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Forty-one years ago, surrounded by death and destruction after the crash of a C-5A Galaxy conducting the first Operation Babylift mission leaving Vietnam, a young Air Force first lieutenant crawled out of the wreckage and stumbled on a truth that became the foundation for her leadership style throughout her career.

Operation Babylift paired American caregivers with South Vietnamese orphans, many fathered by Americans. The program evacuated babies and toddlers first to the Philippines and then San Diego, Calif. Then 1st Lt. Regina Aune was assigned to that first flight to help care for the children, but the C-5 crashed almost immediately after take-off, skidded a quarter mile, went airborne for another half mile then crashed into a ditch, throwing Aune the length of the aircraft’s upper deck.

“After the aircraft stopped [after crashing], looking at the death and destruction … one of my first thoughts was ‘what am I going to do? How am I going to survive this?’,” said Col. (retired) Aune, speaking at the March 28 capstone event for 25th Air Force’s recognition of Women’s History Month. “I remembered some time earlier having seen the POWs returning [from Vietnam]. I was impressed by the strength and dignity they displayed after what they endured. So I thought about that, standing in the mud of that rice paddy, and thought ‘if you [POWs] can do that, and walk with dignity after what you’ve endured, I can survive this … and help those here.’ ”

Aune said the idea of the POWs’ tenacity in the midst of such adversity fueled her own perseverance as a woman and nurse in a military still dominated by males. Her perseverance was demonstrated that very day, as she helped carry 80 babies and young children to rescue helicopters, even though she had suffered a broken foot, broken leg, broken vertebra and numerous injuries as a result of the crash. She became the first woman awarded the Cheney Award, which recognizes Airmen for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily military in nature.

She only shared a few memories about Operation Babylift during her speech, choosing instead to focus her remarks on history and identity.

“All of these special emphasis months [we recognize] are all part of our history, they teach us that we all contributed to the success of this country. If we don’t know where we came from, how do we know who we are?” she asked rhetorically. “History is important because it really tells us who we are.”

She discussed how her own leadership characteristics, including perseverance, were forged by her own experiences. At one point in her military career, she was assigned as the director of her entire medical unit, as a major, with colonels reporting to her about their departments. She told about one colonel who said from the first he wouldn’t work with her, because she was “a nurse, a woman and two ranks below me.”

“I thought, boy, I struck out before I even got up to bat,” she said, to chuckles from the audience. “I decided okay, my responsibility is to take care of all this organization. I’ll just continue to work with him and do the best I can.”

The day came when she had an opportunity to pay him back for his recalcitrance.

“I had to go to his defense. I recognized that I needed to do what was right, what was important,” she said. “Because I took that path, it was a turning point in our relationship. So integrity, one of our [Air Force] core values, is learned, not just something you pluck from a list. We learn it from the face of adversity, from our parents, from our education … and from our history. And that’s also one of the things I learned from that day during Operation Babylift. We have to remember who we are, and where we came from – female, male, black, white, young, old – as we go forward to understand what we need to do to be leaders.”

Aune added that as we remember our history to guide our future, we must include the bad things as well, such as slavery, or the unwillingness to support equal rights for all. Those times forge us as a people, a nation, she said.

“Sometimes the bad things are the best teachers for us. They help us not to make the same mistakes again. Our identify is forged by our history,” she concluded.

The 25th Air Force’s INSPIRE Women initiative organized and sponsored the month’s events, including Col. Aune’s speech. After her remarks, in a continuing nod to women’s history in the Air Force, the day’s program ended with a showcase of vintage women’s Air Force uniforms, narrated by Lt. Col. (retired) David Shultz.

Shultz, a volunteer with the Texas Air Museum at Stinson Field, San Antonio, Texas, is also the curator and owner of an Air Force heritage exhibit, including many vintage Air Force uniforms. The women’s uniforms, modeled by 25th Air Force military and civilian volunteers, ranged in date from the first Women’s Army Air Corps uniform in 1942 through the dress uniform phased out in the early 1970s.