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Redhawk Athena drives Positive Change for 142nd Wing Airmen

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Steph Sawyer
  • 142nd Wing/ Public Affairs

PORTLAND, OR -- In recent years, the Air Force has seen positive change trickle down through its echelons, and many of these changes seek to address barriers to readiness which have predominantly affected women service members.

The Department of the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team, or DAF WIT, established in 2008, is one of seven Barrier Analysis Working Groups, or BAWGs, which has been driving much of the recent positive change, including updated hair standards for women, normalizing support for nursing mothers in the workplace, and improved in-flight bladder relief devices for women flyers, to name a few. Additionally, organizations at the Major Command or MAJCOM level, such as Sword Athena for Air Combat Command (ACC), have been instrumental in highlighting and addressing barriers to readiness for Airmen.

Athenas, named after the Greek Goddess of wisdom and victory, aims to identify, assess, and remedy women- and family-centric issues affecting the readiness of Airmen to carry out the mission.

Since the inception of Sword Athena in 2019, other MAJCOM Athenas have been formed, such as Reach Athena for Air Mobility Command, Dagger Athena for Air Force Special Operations Command, Torch Athena for Air Education and Training Command, and ARC Athena for Air Reserve Command. ARC Athena was recently established in 2023 to focus on issues that specifically affect female service members belonging to the Air Guard and Reserve.

Lt. Col. Kari “Axis” Armstrong, the Inspector General for the 142nd Wing, led one of the nine lines of effort for the ARC Athena inaugural conference in April of 2023, as well as contributed to three others. The event was a success and allowed Airmen from across the Guard and Reserve to come together to discuss issues specifically affecting female service members.

Upon returning from the conference, Armstrong worked with 142nd Wing Deputy Commander at the time, Col. Christopher Lantagne, to establish a wing-level BAWG, nicknamed “Redhawk Athena.” The name is a nod to the wing’s ACC flying mission and the 123rd Fighter Squadron, commonly referred to as “the home of the Redhawks.”

Redhawk Athena was established to serve the 142nd Wing Airmen. The first Redhawk Athena meeting was held in May 2023.

It was Armstrong’s past 12-year experience in the active duty Air Force that allowed her to see the potential for the positive change Redhawk Athena could bring to the 142nd Wing.

Armstrong joined the Air Force in 2007 as a Weapons Systems Officer, WSO or “wizzo,” in the F-15E Strike Eagle, and was the first female fighter WSO to attend the U.S. Air Force Weapons School in 2015. She said that while her active duty career was a great experience, she faced a lot of obstacles as a woman in a male-dominated career field.

Everything about the career field, from the uniforms to the equipment, was designed for men. Compounding these obstacles was the fact that because there were so few women in the career field, she often felt isolated and without a venue to discuss issues impacting her readiness.

Eventually, Armstrong was introduced to the Chick Fighter Pilot Association or CFPA. The group was founded in 2006 by three female F-16 fighter pilots at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. The group was formed to give female fighter pilots and WSOs a support system and a sounding board.

Armstrong said that getting involved with the group helped her feel supported and less isolated.

“I know when I initially got looped into the CFPA, I just loved it,” said Armstrong. “It was the first time I didn’t feel like an outsider.”

Through her experience with the CFPA, Armstrong came to understand the value of having the support and validation of people with similar experiences.

“I just saw the benefit that comes from having a community where you can talk about issues [and] to also not feel like you’re the only person experiencing it, because that’s important for mental health,” said Armstrong.

Her positive experience with the CFPA inspired her to become involved with the DAF WIT, ARC Athena and establish Redhawk Athena for the 142nd Wing.

Armstrong manages the Redhawk Athena working group, keeping records of meetings, tracking lines of effort, and disseminating information on the group’s progress, accomplishments, and endeavors.

Since its inception, the group has worked to ensure the timely availability of maternity OCP (Operational Camouflage Pattern) uniforms, published the 142nd Wing Pregnancy and Postpartum Guide, instructed commanders on pregnancy discrimination and maternal bias, and established a dedicated lactation rooms in the wing headquarters building, as well as ensured lactation room compliance across the entire wing, to include Camp Rilea, the location of the wing’s geographically separated unit, the 116th Air Control Squadron.

During Redhawk Athena meetings, which are held twice every month, participants can discuss issues they’re facing to identify pervasive problems across the wing which are limiting or hindering the readiness of Airmen. Once an issue is identified, the group works to determine the root cause and begins to brainstorm ways to improve or solve the issue with the support and cooperation of wing leadership.

One of the efforts the group is currently working on is establishing funding for a drill weekend childcare program on base.

The group estimates that in a wing of 1,400 members, there are roughly 910 families that could benefit from a no cost on-base childcare option over drill weekends. Many drill status guardsmen encounter difficulties related to arranging and paying for childcare in high-cost areas over drill weekends, negatively impacting Airmen’s morale and readiness.

Currently, Armstrong is drafting a proposal for funding from the National Guard Bureau to support the endeavor. The group hopes to have a program and facilities in place by summer.

Among other changes, current Redhawk Athena projects include developing a local miscarriage policy, enabling time off for Airmen whose partners experience a pregnancy loss, improving reporting and education regarding sexual harassment, installing baby changing tables across the wing, and purchasing feminine hygiene product dispensers for base restrooms. Additionally, the Redhawk Athena group is hosting a one-day Women’s Leadership Conference on May 1, 2024 at Portland Air National Guard base, to discuss leadership topics through the lens of a female service member.

Though the issues that Redhawk Athena sets out to identify are women-and family-centric in nature, in addressing them, the group stands to impact all Airmen in a positive way.

“We talk about issues that particularly affect women, but men come to our meetings too,” said Armstrong. “Just because an issue affects women at a higher rate, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a women’s issue.”

There’s no doubt that Redhawk Athena has and will continue to make a positive impact in the lives and careers of 142nd Wing Airmen.

Armstrong said that in the early years of her career, she didn’t always feel supported or heard, but through Redhawk Athena, she can use the privilege that her years of experience and rank have given her to advocate for others.

“I have a voice, and if I don’t use it, that’s the biggest travesty,” said Armstrong. “So at Redhawk Athena meetings, as people tell me things that are going on, I see it as a privilege that I can go fight for them because that is something I felt I did not have when I was younger.”