WASHINGTON – “I don’t write goals,” said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Naconda Hinton. She laughed, leaning back from the desk. “In high school, I wanted to be a doctor. Things are always changing. You are where you are supposed to be right now.”
Her career has taken her in many directions, and the senior enlisted leader for the District of Columbia National Guard COVID-19 response, 2020 civil unrest and 59th presidential inauguration missions didn’t get where she is by waiting for someone to call on her.
“I really wanted a challenge. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone,” said Hinton. “I’ve done a lot with the [113th] Wing, but I hadn’t really been that involved with joint operations, so I took the opportunity.”
Hinton is the first female senior enlisted leader, or SEL, for joint missions of the D.C. National Guard. Her role is to make sure the Soldiers and Airmen understand the mission and that senior leadership is aware of service members’ concerns.
“Some of the challenges I faced initially were because I’m not Army, I’m Air [Force], and I’m female,” Hinton said. “They did not think I was the SEL until I brought it to their attention, especially when we had the civil unrest [mission].” She believed there was a difference between Army and Air Force operations and explained that she had to learn many new processes and acronyms. “I leaned heavily on senior enlisted females on the Army side to help me.”
Hinton is used to forging new paths. In 1998 she enlisted as a security forces Airman with the 169th Security Forces Squadron, 169th Fighter Wing, South Carolina Air National Guard. She was one of only three women in her squadron.
“It was extremely difficult,” said Hinton. “It was like I was fighting, trying to prove myself to them to show them that I can do this too.”
After six years in security, Hinton transitioned to the medical field. That career change helped her focus and she returned to school, receiving her bachelor’s in biology from Columbia College. In 2007 she transferred to the D.C. National Guard, looking for a new start. In 2009, at the same time her father was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, Hinton volunteered to deploy to Iraq as an emergency medical technician.
“It was eye-opening and helped me understand my ‘why’,” Hinton said.
She held various leadership positions and eventually returned to the medical field as the 113th Wing Medical Group superintendent, earning her master’s in human resource management in 2015. She acknowledged that the military has become more diverse and offers more opportunities to women in the more than 20 years since she first enlisted.
“Be confident and humble,” she said. “If you are willing to go out there and try it, then try it. That’s how I ended up in this [SEL] position, I volunteered. Was it intimidating at first? Absolutely.”
Hinton credits her success to building alliances and mentorship. While Hinton was a staff sergeant, U.S. Air Force Maj. Paula Penson became her mentor. Penson became a medical group commander and retired as a colonel. That relationship helped Hinton reflect on what she wanted from her career.
“Had it not been for her, I don’t know where I’d be,” said Hinton. “We had some crucial conversations that really made me look in the mirror.” Those conversations gave Hinton a chance to address her options and make decisions that propelled her forward. Now, as a chief, she often has junior Airmen ask how she got where she is.
“I tell them it wasn’t easy. I didn’t get here overnight,” said Hinton. “It was a lot of sacrifices, a lot of times I cried, but I picked myself up. I’m resilient.”
When sharing her experiences and talking about her career with service members, she always asks if they have a mentor.
“If they say no, I ask why,” said Hinton. “No matter what rank, even the highest leader has a mentor.”
If she’s learned anything from the pandemic, it’s the importance of being flexible and taking care of mental health. Part of that is having a strong support system, which, for Hinton, includes her husband and 2-year old son and her fellow members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. The other part is not having certain expectations or tying herself to a set path.
“You need to be mentally ready for opportunities,” said Hinton. She knows it’s challenging to be mentally prepared for every possible thing that might come her way. That goes for her home life as well. “I could plan out a whole day and my son is going to do whatever he wants.”
She emphasized people are always going through something in their lives, good and bad. She said developing supportive relationships with others is key, especially young female service members.
“We [women] are so few and far between, especially in leadership roles,” said Hinton. “When you have those opportunities to give back, you’ve got to mentor the junior enlisted.”
For the future of women in the military, Hinton sees great things ahead.
“We have the first female chief master sergeant of the Air Force. We have our first female vice president,” said Hinton. “Just give us the opportunity. Don’t box us in.”