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First female tactical systems operator at 137 SOW spurs positive change

First female tactical systems operator at 137 SOW drives positive change for female Airmen.

Master Sgt. Kimberly Lingle, a 189th Intelligence Squadron tactical systems operator, poses for a photograph inside of an aircraft hangar at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City, March 22, 2018. Lingle is the 137th Special Operations Wing’s first homegrown female tactical systems operator (TSO) in the Air National Guard.

WILL ROGERS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Okla. -- After nearly 15 years in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, one bachelor of science degree, two associate degrees, eight deployments, 12 years as an aircraft mechanic, more than 280 flight hours, two Air Force Commendation Medals, two Air Force Achievement Medals, and many more certifications and awards for outstanding achievement in male-dominated career fields, Master Sgt. Kimberly Lingle carves her own way through life.

In 2017, Lingle continued that trend and became Will Rogers Air National Guard Base’s first homegrown female Tactical Systems Operator. But for Lingle, after joining the U.S. Air Force as an active duty aircraft mechanic and crew chief right out of high school in 2003, being “the first” in many aspects of her military career was just a natural next step.

“During our first introduction to her, I stood in awe of her beauty, tenacity and unique personality,” wrote the late Lt. Col. Stephen Howard, former commander of the 137th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City in a recommendation letter. “I have seen her work alongside some of the meanest Air Force mechanics, who take every opportunity to try and run her out of their shop, but she did not miss a beat. She convinced her peers that she was able to take the heat, turn the wrench, and still show a smile with grease on her face.”

Much of her resiliency and know-how came from her grandfather, a man with no high school diploma but more than 20 engineering-based patents and his granddaughters’ complete awe.

“He just opened up his own business, was super successful and he was just the most amazing man,” remembered Lingle. “He really, really was. I think that's sort of influenced us. He never treated the girls differently than the boy cousins. We were fishing with them, we were doing electrical work, doing drywall, working in the shop, and doing whatever we wanted to do.”

Lingle said she believes that her decision to go into a mechanical career field in the Air Force was largely based on her experiences with her grandfather, who passed last year. He was also a strong influence in the life of her sister, Master Sgt. Leslie Wirstrom, who is a recruiter at the same base.

“I think I was a very unique child to start,” explained Lingle with a chuckle. “It's funny because we did like dancing and ballet when we were kids, but we were tomboys too and would roughhouse. My grandfather… I would probably say he's mine and Leslie's hero.”

In her current position as a TSO, Lingle flies as part of the aircrew on the MC-12W where she looks at information while airborne, and resolves any operational and technical issues. She often finds herself as part of otherwise all-male aircrews.

“I've ended up thriving in that,” she said. “I’ve had to adapt to that environment of working with men because you have to have thick skin. Sometimes it’s like you have a target on your back, and you will get left out of things. You just have to back it up with hard work and talent. You have to make yourself an asset.”

In saying that, Lingle said she often found herself in the middle of the very necessary culture shift when she was still in the maintenance world.

“I am very vocal, very outspoken, and a lot of times, very blunt; and I have no problem telling people where the line is,” she said. “If we had other girls in different shops and stuff, I made sure we had a solid reputation. Like our girls, we pushed the culture change with hard work. We could take it and give it. Sometimes we're not physically equal in strength, but we're pretty damn creative.”

Lingle has seen more and more women doing the job alongside her and acknowledged the positive changes for women that have happened in the Air Force during her career, but also spoke out against the sexual harassment and inequality still present.

“It's better, but the issues are going to continue,” she said. “It's going to continue, and that’s not fair. It's not right. It’s made me question my judgment and definition of sexism. I never want another woman to experience what I’ve had to endure in my career. But even then, I try to be fair and give people the benefit of a doubt. I want to give people the opportunity to change it.”

Lingle draws on her experiences with her grandfather to be a force of change in today’s changing environment.

“He taught my sister and I our hard work ethic, to always return something better than the way you got it and to always go that extra mile,” she said. “It’s about the quiet strength of just sticking to your values and being resilient. At the end of the day, you just don't let them win. Whether ‘them’ is internal forces or external people, don’t let them win.”

Since becoming a TSO, Lingle has started directly supervising younger women for the first time, something she is proud of and has immense hope in.

“That’s one of the disadvantages of being a female in a male-dominated career field,” she explained. “I had no female mentors in regards to my career. I faced the majority of my challenges myself. I was the only female crew chief in my active duty squadron. I’ve really had to earn my place as a female in a male-dominated career field.”

For the future, she wants the culture to empower women to find their feet and blaze their own trails through life, but she never wants them to be alone on that path again.

“We need to mentor them by sharing our experiences, because the next generation of women… they inspire me,” she said. “I want to make the future better for those women. In maintenance, I lived and contributed to the culture change towards us. I wanted us to be looked at as an asset first and never a weakness. I saw that change in the maintenance group and hope to pass that change to more career fields and future generations.”