Three Vance women embrace equality to achieve top enlisted rank

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Alyssa Letts
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Women's Equality Day, first celebrated Aug. 26, 1971, marks the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

Three women at Vance Air Force Base have embraced that equality, overcome adversity and achieved the highest enlisted rank -- chief master sergeant.

Chief Master Sgts. Kristy Earls, Felisha Whitlow and Jessica Martin shared their stories, struggles and goals for their Air Force careers.


Chief Master Sgt. Kristy Earls

As a native of Maine, Chief Master Sgt. Kristy Earls, the 71st Flying Training Wing command chief, knew very little about the Air Force growing up. Now she’s the wing’s first female command chief in Vance history.

Earls initially attended college for nursing, but was forced to drop out due to the compounding cost. Her dad brought her to meet with a Navy recruiter first, because the Navy had a stronger presence in the New England region and the Air Force recruiting position was vacant at the time. 

“A couple months later, I came home and there was an Air Force recruiter at my kitchen table,” said Earls. She hasn’t looked back since.

Earls’ dad never questioned her ability to join a male-dominated profession when he introduced those recruiters. She, though, faced some difficulties along the way. 

“One thing that stands out to me, that wouldn’t be tolerated today, is that I had been cat-called publicly during a deployment,” said Earls. 

She also remembered an instance where she was asked to tour a spouse around her installation while her male counterpart was asked to tour the command chief. 

“He had the opportunity to be mentored by one of our senior leaders. When I inquired as to why I wasn’t assigned those escort duties, I was told that I had more in common with the spouse,” said Earls. “I felt that I was assigned to keep his spouse entertained solely because I was a woman. That isn’t fair. 

“We must treat others equally, with dignity and respect. We all deserve to have the same opportunities afforded to us.” said Earls

Earls’ hope is that by being the command chief at Vance, she can open the door for those who follow her.

“I felt honored to be selected for the position, but there was also a little bit of sadness... it shouldn't have taken this long,” said Earls. “It’s not just about putting more pictures of women on the wall. It’s about bringing diverse backgrounds to the table.” 

After 13 assignments in her 25 years in the Air Force, the command chief couldn’t pick a favorite. “You’re asking me to pick a favorite child, and that’s hard to do because you gain an appreciation for each one,” said Earls. 

She encourages Airmen to do the same. While every assignment may not be the top choice, there’s opportunity everywhere. 

Her biggest piece of advice to young Airmen is to be themselves. “Be you; be authentic,” said Earls. “Don’t try and change yourself to fit into a mold. If you work hard and take care of others, it’ll work out.”


Chief Master Sgt. Felisha Whitlow

Chief Master Sgt. Felisha Whitlow, formerly the 71st Mission Support Group superintendent at Vance, is now the 82nd Mission Support Group superintendent at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

She enlisted for the Air Force because her friend convinced her it would be a good idea. 
Her best friend, Amy, had talked her into doing the buddy program in 1996 -- a program that allowed friends to enlist and then go to their first assignment together. 

“My friend, Amy, didn’t end up enlisting, so I was kicking and screaming on my way to boot camp,” said Whitlow. From there, she continued on in a career based off of hard work, perseverance and courage.

One of the biggest challenges that Whitlow has had to endure, is being a single mom of three for the majority of her career. “It was very uncommon to be a single mom when I first started,” she said. “There was a stigma there that I worked my hardest to avoid.” 

Whitlow is a firm believer that women can do both - have a family and a career. Early on in her career, many people doubted that she could juggle both, but their doubts pushed her even more to succeed.

“People put negative thoughts in your mind because it’s something they wouldn't do or they don't have the courage to do,” said Whitlow. 

At Vance, Whitlow shut down the naysayers when she became the first woman promoted from senior master sergeant to chief master sergeant while in the 71st Flying Training Wing. Her inspiration to succeed was rooted in her time at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. 

“The first African American command chief that I saw shocked me,” said Whitlow. “Her name was Chief (Master Sgt.) Joe Ann Pace, command chief at Barksdale Air Force Base, in 2009. I had never seen one and when she walked past me with such presence, I remember thinking I want to be like her.” 

In the 11 years since that encounter, Whitlow has done just that. 

Her favorite part of her time at Vance was the opportunity to be on such a diverse team. She said that being on a chief team that was half women and half men, was a rare treasure. 

“When I’m making a team, I want it to be eclectic,” said Whitlow. “If we miss a characteristic that each individual brings, it will make us less lethal.”

She encourages Airmen to be bold, and take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. “The lasting legacy I want to leave behind is to be your true, authentic self. If you’re not, your followers see right through it,” said Whitlow.


Chief Master Sgt. Jessica Martin 

Chief Master Sgt. Jessica Martin, the 71st Operations Support Squadron superintendent and the Radar Approach Control Chief Controller, is one of the three female chiefs that has led the way at Team Vance this past year.

She didn’t have to travel as far from home to get here. 

“I grew up coming to the pool and youth center here at Vance,” said Martin. Her family moved to the Enid area when she was in fifth grade. 

Prior to coming back to Vance on orders, Martin spent her 16 years climbing to the top faster than most. She made every rank the first time eligible, a rarity for Airmen. 

Because of this, she is not only one of the few females in leadership positions at Vance, but also the youngest. 

“People doubt me because I’m so young,” said Martin. “I worked my butt off to get to the table.” 

Martin started her enlisted career with intentions of commissioning. However, she grew to love being an air traffic controller and taking care of her people. She didn’t want to trade that for the officer equivalent. 

“I decided to stay and grow where I was,” she said. 

As a squadron superintendent, she still gets to work closely with Airmen every day. 

She’s seen the Air Force become a more inclusive and healthier place for young Airmen since her enlistment in 2004. Airmen are encouraged to speak their mind now, and have a seat at the table, she said.

Martin encourages Airmen to continue to problem-solve and not let themselves get boxed into the worker-bee stereotype. 

Her biggest piece of advice to Airmen is to find a balance between work and families. 

“Sometimes I struggle to take care of my dog,” Martin said. “It amazes me that women have children and still excel at work. I am trying to learn to throttle back and live a life in conjunction with work.”

After coming back to her hometown, she’s realized how much of an impact the Air Force has had on her. 

“I am a better-rounded, more tolerant, more diverse, stronger person than I think I ever would have been if I had not left,” said Martin. “All the people I've met, the places I've been and the travel have made that happen.” 

She’s extremely grateful for the opportunity to be back home with family and friends, but she appreciates the time that she spent away to grow. “It’s been fast and furious, but I don’t regret any of it,” said Martin.