Lifelong mechanic: Female chief reflects on USAF career

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Aubrey White
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The sun beats down on a scorching Alabama afternoon as young girl wipes the sweat off of her forehead, leaving behind grease smudges. She's helping her father, a vehicle mechanic, work on a car; he's teaching her everything he knows about the trade.

The girl, now U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Teresa Russell, the vehicle management functional manager at Air Combat Command, did not think at the time she'd be in the position she is now, at the top of her career field in the world's most powerful Air Force.

"I joined the Air Force two weeks right out of high school, so I was 18 years old," she said. "Right after I left basic and tech school, my first duty assignment was Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. So here I am 18 years old from the sticks of Alabama and I'm going overseas to Germany - it was a very eye-opening experience, it was a great assignment."

Although living in a new country seemed to be one of the biggest challenges Russell would face, it wasn't long after she arrived that she realized a personal trait, outside of her control, would cause more obstacles than anything she had ever experienced.

"It was difficult because I was always the only female in the vehicle maintenance [shop]," Russell explained. "I did think about cross training a few times but when it came down to it I really liked what I was doing and I didn't want to go do something else."

It was that passion for vehicle maintenance, coupled with guidance from female Airmen in different occupations that inspired Russell to push through the hard times.

Following her assignment in Germany, Russell was assigned to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, again as a vehicle mechanic. Russell recalled this shop being more difficult than the last due to the isolation she experienced being, once again, the only woman.
"You know, it was a man's world there so I was isolated," she explained. "I just felt alone there, but I still did my job every day, worked on vehicles."

"A lot of the vehicle maintenance shops have older civilians that are used to women staying at home, so when a woman comes into the shop they have a hard time wanting to give you work and then they would try to take the work away from you," said Russell. "I kept pressing through, minding my own business and doing what I had to do."

After several permanent changes of station, deployments, cross training into the vehicle management career field and becoming a wife and mother, Russell said her obstacles as a woman in the service only increased, but she affirmed that maintaining resiliency was the way she continued to succeed.

I think the hardest part [about being married in the] military, especially mil-to-mil couples, is when you go on a deployment and come back, your spouse deploys. You never see one another," Russell, the wife of a retired security forces Airman and a mother of a 9-year-old girl, explained. "It is a struggle, and it's hard to leave your children, especially if you're a woman."

"As a mom you have that innate feeling to want to mother your child," she continued. "I've experienced the 'guilty mom syndrome' a thousand times, but when I know I'm doing it for her that makes me feel better."

Russell is the second woman in 20 years to hold the position of the ACC vehicle management functional manager. She said she believes there's been such a gap in female functional managers in part due to the nature of the vehicle maintenance and management field, but also because some women reach a certain point in their lives when their ready to hang up the uniform and concentrate on family life.

For the women who decide to continue in the field, she said, "stand up for yourself. Women in our career field get shut out a lot. Never be afraid because if something wrong is happening, it needs to be talked about."

As for her daughter, Russell said she can already see that she is going to be a strong leader and that in part is due to her influence as a leader in the Air Force.

"As a leader in the Air Force and a mother, that sets a very strong foundation for your children," she avowed. "Know that the decisions you are making are the right ones. If [joining the military] was something she wanted to do, as a mother I would support her."