SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois Air National Guard Capt. Jennifer Weitekamp did not set out to be a trailblazer with her military service. Still, when then-Senior Airman Jennifer Donaldson graduated from the Air National Guard's pilot Counter Sniper School April 14, 2001, she became just that – a trailblazer for military women.
"The Counter Sniper school sounded like a lot of fun, a 'cool school'," said Weitekamp, who became the first woman to complete a U.S. military sniper school – the first woman sniper in the Department of Defense. "It was a very challenging course, not fun, but I learned a lot. There were days I wanted to go home. I was scared and nervous. But I kept telling myself I could do it so others could attend."
Weitekamp, a lifelong resident of Illinois, joined the ILANG as a member of the security force squadron while still in high school and attended basic training the summer after graduation. During her six years in security forces, she spent nearly three years on active duty, deploying several times in support of Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. She later earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a Master of Education degree from the University of Illinois.
Weitekamp said she chose security forces because she wanted a civilian law enforcement career. However, her devotion to service and the growth of her family led her to work full-time for the Air National Guard.
"I wanted to be a law enforcement officer," Weitekamp said. "I decided the military was the best way to get my foot in the door."
Following a stint as a paralegal, she started work in personnel. It was while in this role for the 183rd Air Operations Group that Weitekamp applied for and earned her commission as a second lieutenant. She now works as a personnel officer for the Joint Staff at Illinois' Joint Force Headquarters on Camp Lincoln in Springfield.
While her accomplishment two decades before may seem all but forgotten, an exhibit at the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, ensures others know about her feat.
The exhibit, "Women in the Air Force: From Yesterday into Tomorrow," highlights Weitekamp's and others' achievements in their civilian and military careers with an emphasis on the U.S. Air Force. It opened March 5 as part of Women's History Month.
According to Weitekamp, who attended the exhibit's opening, the display is sprinkled throughout the museum, so visitors can view the different timelines and achievements covered by the exhibit as they walk through the museum.
"Each person honored on the exhibit was invited to attend the opening," she said. "It was surreal to see myself on an exhibit."
"I would urge anyone thinking of military service to know what you want from your service," she said. "I've benefited from several mentors, and without those leaders, I wouldn't have been able to do half of what I've accomplished. Someone has your back, and I would urge you to be that person for others."
Museum Curator Jennifer Blankinship said telling the story of what women in the Air Force have overcome and their contributions to support the mission is a significant chapter in Air Force history. By expanding the museum's exhibits to better represent the role of women, the museum is able to highlight how vital the contributions of each Airman.
"Courageous women have broken barriers in all walks of life and those in the Air Force are certainly no different," said Blankinship. "It has always been important for us to tell the story of what women in the Air Force have accomplished, and it is my hope that this exhibit will inspire future generations to pursue their goals regardless of how difficult it might seem."