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Air Force Colonel’s Experience as a Female Leader

Official photo of Colonel Brenda Oppel

U.S. Air Force Colonel Brenda Oppel, Official Photo. Oppel who is the Enterprise Information Technology-as-a-Service Integrated Program Officer, sat for a virtual interview to discuss her experiences, March 2021. Oppel continues to mentor young females, both Air Force and civilian, in the Cyber field, and is also a local Brownie Girl Scouts troop leader, fostering their interest in STEM, in Woburn, Mass. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Chloe Shanes)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

As a young child, Brenda Oppel knew she wanted to grow up to do great things. Coming from a strong military family, she wanted to continue that legacy. 

Choosing to follow through the college AFROTC route for commissioning, Oppel received a scholarship for Aviation Computer Science in the College of Engineering. It was at the AFROTC Detachment, that Oppel had her first experience with positive female leadership. Detachment Commander, Col McKelvy was an impactful role-model for Oppel and showed her how to be a mentor and leader to younger Airmen.

After graduating and beginning her Air Force career, she soon became interested in soaring among the clouds as an Air Force pilot.

“There was a selection message that had just come out, to be an active-duty pilot selection candidate,” Colonel Brenda Oppel, Enterprise Information Technology-as-a-Service Integrated Program Office, said. “It’s once a year, they take packages from people, and if you wanted to be a pilot, they’d place you in pilot training the next year.”

This new opportunity peaked Oppel’s interest and she went after it.

“Having researched the metrics of it, over the last four years, only one female out of 50 people was selected,” Oppel said. “I said ‘I’m going to be the girl that beat the odds and they’re going to choose two this year!’,” 

“That was the most expensive choice in my life because I was so determined to be 2 out of 50, that I paid $5,000 to have my eyes corrected with laser surgery before the Air Force approved it for career support fields; I also paid $5,000 to get my personal, private pilot’s license, because if you got [it] and had extra hours, that counted towards a higher board score. And I knew that, as a woman, I needed the best board score I could get.”   

After having many hoops to jump through just to have the opportunity of consideration, Oppel was not selected as a pilot. 

This was one, but certainly not the last, time she faced a challenge due to her female identity.

Oppel went on to work in different shops, where she was thankful for strong female leadership.  She soon realized that she had to be the strong female leader, that she once idolized for her younger Airmen , at home station and while on deployments. 

“The United States [team] was the only one with a female officer, and that was me.” Oppel said, in relation to her four-month deployment in Bosnia. “In the beginning, I was looking around the headquarters for another female, and there just weren’t any. In another building, I did have an enlisted female who was working on Intelligence. I had to be like a Mama duck and protect her because of the men who didn’t necessarily have the same rules and responsibilities and protections, like I think we do in the United States military.”

From this deployment, Oppel was able to help her female enlisted troop  who  experienced a  sexual assault. It gave her new insight that a female leader can, and should, use their emotional capacity as a strength to lead others, not as a weakness. Oppel believes that this asset can make us a stronger, more united force. 

As of 31 October 2020, U.S. Air Force female officers make up 22.4% of all commissioned members. Though females have made huge strides for inclusion and equal representation in all fields, they still have a long way to go, Oppel concluded. 

“I’ve been on deployments and I have seen how other cultures, other nations, other militaries deal with females in the ranks,” Oppel, said. “And that makes me appreciate even more how the United States deals with females in the ranks, granted, it’s not perfect, yet. It has been blossoming and evolving in my 23 years to get better, but we still are better than most other cultures and most other international military organizations.”