A Major Accomplishment

Stacy Jo Huser: First woman to work in the US Air Force’s ICBM planning section. Now leads the section.

Major Stacy Huser

Childhood: Northern Indiana
Current Home: Nebraska
Birth Year: 1972

Stacy and I went to the same high school, where she excelled in every subject, and had social skills to boot.  We also ran cross country together and she continues to compete in marathons.  But she is not your stereotypical nerd or athlete.  She is a true one-of-a-kind whose galloping curiosity seems to drive everything from her friendships to her career. A word I hear her use often and never with a trace of sarcasm is “fascinating.”

What do you do and when did you get there?
The whole unit I’m in (which is a couple hundred people) maintains the nation’s war plan.  My section focuses on the ICBM planning aspect of the war plan. I came there in July, 2008.

How did you find out you were the first woman in the section?
The guy in charge at the time was worried about me coming in because they didn’t have another woman there.  So he was worried that the environment would be too raunchy for me.  But the truth is, it turned out to be pretty tame.  It’s funny, I’m not really sure what their perception of women is.  I’m not a person who is easily offended, and I’m actually more likely to be the one doing the offending. Anyway, there is an older civilian guy who has worked there a long time and he said that I was the first one.

What led you to want to want to work in ICBM planning?
When I worked in Montana with ICBM folks, I enjoyed the structure, history, and culture of people in that field.  Also, it’s a lot of math, number crunching, quiet time thinking at your desk.  I like all that.  So I actually tried to get this position the last time I transferred, and they wanted me to come, but I got a different assignment.  That’s the kind of thing that happens in the Air Force. But this time I got it.  I arrived just as one of the regular workers, but shortly after I got there, my boss told me he would be leaving and that he wanted to put me in charge.  I’ve been running this section since July, 2009.

Do you think your being here as a woman means that a path has been paved, or is this just an aberration?
I hope there will be more women now that I’m here.  I talk to a lot of people about this work, and I hope that some of the women I talk to will think, “If Major Huser can do that, I can do that too.” But I really don’t know.  I sort of doubt there will be more women any time soon.  I’m not sure if most women just don’t find the work interesting or if they are intimidated by the all-male environment. It’s not like the Air Force has any sort of active outreach to help women get into all-male areas.  The outreach is always just to find the best possible person, and not to take a chance on someone who is a woman if she doesn’t have as many qualifications.

Who are three role models you had as a child or young adult?
Aunt Jo (My dad’s sister), Aunt Leah (My dad’s sister),and Dad.

What do you think you have learned from each of them that has led you to succeed?
My dad’s sisters were kind of oddities.  They were very strong women, though they were all raised Amish.  Aunt Jo and Aunt Leah amazed me because they would decide they wanted to do something, and then they would just do it.  People listened to them and they were brilliant.  They set in my mind that women can be in charge.

Aunt Leah was fun too.  She would always play with me and my brother while the adults did other things.  Aunt Jo started a restaurant in Goshen as a very young woman and ran it successfully for 20-30 years.  She was a real task master from what I understand, but outside the restaurant she was kind and compassionate.

Aunt Leah was one of the first women to get an MBA from, I forget what school, but she got hired by [a scholastic testing company] and worked for them and then she would go off and do things like start her own businesses.

As for my dad, I almost hesitated to list him as a role model because he was such a bastard so much of the time.  But from an early age, right or wrong, he put me in charge of things.  My parents owned a restaurant, and if he was sick or gone or whatever, I had to do the books, pay all the bills, everything.  And I was just 14 years old in charge of all the finances!

When you encounter subtle sexism in your professional  life, how do you usually deal with it?
One kind of weird thing is that there is almost a reverse sexism.  Because there are so few women in the Air Force, you are remembered more, and if you do something well they tend to think you’ve done it better than a man would just because you’re a woman.  I think I get away with more too.  I can say “Sir, that really sounds stupid,”  —actually I say much worse than that!—and get away with it whereas a man might not be able to.  It’s not really fair, but I’m not going to complain about it.  If it helps me get the job done and take care of my people I’m not going to argue.

One example of sexism I can think of, though, was in Alabama when I was in my initial training when I first joined.  In our group it was 9 men and 2 women.  At one point we were having some kind of touchy feely group discussion led by an asshole of an instructor.  He was asking people what they missed most while they were at the training.  Some of the guys had wives and kids and started talking about how much they missed them, and they even started crying.  So I started crying. When other people are crying, especially men, I tend to cry too.  But afterwards, this instructor pulled just me aside and told me “You won’t make it in the Air Force if you can’t control your emotions.”  The men were crying too, but he singled me out because I was a woman crying.  It is true that I get more emotional than the guys and I have had to learn how to control my emotions, but in this case I was just doing what everyone else was.

In  Montana we did have a situation come up where this guy was touching women.  He would walk up and put his hands on your hips while talking to you!  I would just say “Don’t touch me.”  He ended up getting in trouble for sexual harassment because he did other things that were much worse.  You see that kind of stuff more at the missile bases because the officers are often right out of college and immature and single.  There will be more sexual jokes, inappropriate behavior.  Where I am now, everyone is in their late 30s to early 40s, married, kids, done with all that immaturity.

I don’t mean to make it sound like these types of behaviors are tolerated. They aren’t.  The one thing the Air Force is really good about is their zero tolerance sexual assault and harassment policy.  Every base has sexual assault response personnel that can work with victims confidentially, or not confidentially, and help them report and deal with any type of sexual harassment or assault.  Unfortunately, as happens at many places, many of these instances go unreported.  I didn’t report the guy I mentioned above because he was a friend and when I told him not to touch me ever again, there was no question he would comply.  I later regretted that decision because he did put much younger and more vulnerable women into uncomfortable situations.

What has been the hardest decision you’ve had to make being in charge of the section?
Picking my successor.  I’ll be leaving next year to be second in command for a squadron.  So I need to choose who will replace me, but all my guys are pretty new.  The hardest thing was to sit down with the guy who thought that he should get the job and to tell him that he won’t.

What is the decision that makes you feel proudest?
When I took over the section, we didn’t have a good relationship with the agencies we work with.  It was very adversarial. That was something I decided I wanted to change. Now, we have an excellent relationship.

I also try to take care of the guys.  Now we do things like recognize birthdays, or if someone’s wife gets sick we send flowers.  We make sure people can get time off to go to their kids’ events.  This probably won’t continue after I’m gone, but I do plan to talk to my successor about the importance of taking care of the people who work under you.

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