Sky Warriors: A Day in the Life of Women in the U.S. Air Force

This place is hot in the sun and even hotter in the wind, which blows like a 110-degree hair dryer. Staff Sergeant Rhoniesha Seubert doesn’t wash her face full of makeup in her second of three daily showers, because it’ll undoubtedly be covered in sweat again as soon as she steps outside on Al Dhafra Air Base, 20 miles south of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Picture a beige expanse of desert and dust ringed by high fences and packed with rectangular temporary buildings and trailers, all equally colorless. At Al Dhafra, there is little relief from the look and feel of being in a metal-and-concrete camp. And there is little interruption of the service members’ routines.

At 11:30 last night, dressed for work, Seubert, 24, walked into the dining facility, where she took off the regulation hat she has to wear, in certain base locations, as part of her uniform over the regulation bun she keeps her hair in — if she’s feeling spunky, she positions said bun a little bit higher — and filled a to-go container with steak and eggs and salad and broccoli. At 11:45, she got on a bus that drove her and a bunch of very loud guys, teasing, yelling — “They’re always rowdy in the ‘mornings,’ ” she says jokingly — to an area of the base where they keep the bombs. Operation Inherent Resolve, as the war with ISIS is called, is largely an air war, and this base, which is mostly Air Force, is one of the homes of the planes that fight it. Seubert spends all night almost every night in a quiet, dimly lit box of an office sitting at one of three computers coordinating and logging movements of people and weaponry in the Munitions Storage Area.

<cite class="credit">Seubert puts her hair up in the bun she wears while on duty.</cite>
Seubert puts her hair up in the bun she wears while on duty.

At 2 a.m., she takes a break and goes out for a run. When her shift is over at noon, she gets back on the bus. On Thursdays and Fridays after work, she heads to the Community Activity Center (CAC), where three shots are $9 at the bar and three is the maximum number of drinks allowed per person on base per day. She gets a double gin and cran and one shot of Jameson. She chats with a friend for an hour or two in the CAC, which is lit as bright as a cafeteria and smells like popcorn — today, there’s a Will Smith movie on in the TV lounge area next to the bar tables — and then goes home and takes another shower and gets into bed by 4 or 4:30 p.m. She also does this exact routine on her roommate’s half-day, the drinks helping her sleep through her roommate’s 5:30 arrival in their super tight room, which is half the size of a college dorm and crammed with their two twin beds and two tall storage chests with only about enough space to walk between them. On her first deployment, Seubert brought an iPad so she could FaceTime with her husband — who calls her “ookie butt,” much to the mocking delight of her fellow airmen — and sleep with him on the device next to her, but three deployments in, they’re used to the separation.

Her days are long on work, short on socialization, with possible time for some Netflix. The food she eats is so palate-numbingly repetitive and often canned-tasting that on a theme occasion such as soul food day, the line snakes way out past the door. The memorandum about what everyone can and cannot wear is more than 200 pages long. Because the Air Force is 80 percent men, and men are allowed mustaches, but not beards in most circumstances, Seubert conducts her work in a frankly disconcerting sea of mustaches. “Towards the end” of the six-month deployment, she concedes, “it drags.”

<cite class="credit">Captain Elizabeth Maksim, the senior intelligence officer at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates</cite>
Captain Elizabeth Maksim, the senior intelligence officer at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates

And the women interviewed for this story: They love it. “I do, yeah,” says Captain Elizabeth Maksim, 32, who is the senior intelligence officer on Al Dhafra. “I do like serving my country,” she explains, but also, “there’s a lot of nice things about deployment. It just gives you time to get rid of all the distractions and just focus on yourself. I work, and then I go work out, and then I go to bed. You could go to bingo night, but that’s pretty low-key.”

<cite class="credit">Maksim out for a morning run before the heat makes it impossible.</cite>
Maksim out for a morning run before the heat makes it impossible.

At 6 a.m. that day, Maksim was standing on the outdoor track in running shorts, about to warm up to do a series of 200-meter sprints in the already wilting heat; she stopped by her room, which she vacuums three times a week (“Sand gets in everything”), for a quick shower and change before heading to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, where she works; she stays there 12 to 14 hours a day looking at maps and computers and keeping leadership apprised of what’s going on in the theater.

<cite class="credit">Maksim heads to the communal showers.</cite>
Maksim heads to the communal showers.

She’ll go to the gym to work out again at 8 p.m., before squeezing in an episode of something on Netflix and going to bed that night.

The job is “a lot of pressure”: Pilots’ missions are planned around her intel, so if she misidentifies a threat, or misses a threat, people could die. In 2011, she was the intel lead on the B-2 stealth bombing of Libya. But for Maksim, the responsibility is part of the appeal. After the four-year commitment of active duty she signed up for postcollege — as an undergrad, she joined the ROTC to help pay tuition — she left the military to go to grad school; she did three years in a civilian marketing job after getting her master’s, before reenlisting to full-time active duty for this deployment. That’s because in the Air Force, she says, “I’ve never felt slighted because I’m female. Even the role I’m in now as the senior intel officer — that’s a pretty prestigious role, right, because I’m functionally in charge of all intel on base. I worked with a male captain, but he technically works for me.” In her civilian job, on the other hand, the industry she was working for was “male dominated, and very antiquated and conservative.” Other people took credit for her work, didn’t give her credit for the work she was doing, and didn’t listen to her ideas. “My confidence was pretty shot after that,” she says. “That’s another reason I wanted to come back to the military, because I knew people trusted what I say and I’m a credible person, and I feel like my opinion matters.”

<cite class="credit">Senior Airman Erica Webster ready for her day.</cite>
Senior Airman Erica Webster ready for her day.

Senior Airman Erica Webster, a 23-year-old ground-communications technician who sets up and maintains the cockpits and communications links for pilots who fly drones, speaks similarly of her male colleagues. “They let us do the work, they don’t baby us, and they motivate us, saying, ‘Oh, you can do it,’ ” she says. Every night after her 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, she joins her unit, the same well-gelled young gentlemen she spends the bus ride to and from work and the rest of the day with, at a picnic table at the outdoor cantina for drinks. She’s never felt discriminated against for her gender. “We just hang out,” she says.

<cite class="credit">Staff Sergeant Melissa Kirkbride, a flight engineer, inspects a massive KC-10 Extender aerial-refueling tanker before a mission.</cite>
Staff Sergeant Melissa Kirkbride, a flight engineer, inspects a massive KC-10 Extender aerial-refueling tanker before a mission.

Not everyone, of course, has the same experience. Staff Sergeant Melissa Kirkbride is, by her estimate, the only female engineer in her unit and one of only two female engineers on the entire base. She felt, at the beginning of her career, “like I always had to prove myself — I always had extra eyes on me,” she says. People were checking her work: “I’ve done it 30 times. I’m qualified to do it. Why am I being checked?” People nicknamed her “Mom,” though the 30-year-old is not a mom and certainly not any of her fellow airmen’s mom. Like Seubert and Webster, Kirkbride enlisted partly for the travel opportunities and educational assistance the military offered, and today is her 99th combat flight as the engineer on a massive aerial-refueling tanker carrying 100,000 pounds of jet fuel into the airspace over Iraq.

<cite class="credit">Kirkbride talks to pilots in the cockpit of a KC-10 and performs preflight checks.</cite>
Kirkbride talks to pilots in the cockpit of a KC-10 and performs preflight checks.

At 5 a.m., Kirkbride woke up, turned on the Christmas lights that decorate her room, and watched Free Willy. At 8:01 she was loading up a container of food from the dining facility to take on a day of flying: olives, carrots, four packs of peanut butter, strawberry shortcake improvised out of donuts, cream cheese, and strawberries. After taking the bus with the rest of the crew to the flight line, she put on a boss pair of Coach aviators, popped her earrings out and stuck them in the sidearm pocket of her flight suit, and started her check of the KC-10 aircraft. She walked around it on the ground and climbed between the wheels. She found a leak in the brakes that she ordered maintenance to fix — a vital repair that took 1.5 hours for crews to address. Up the tall staircase to the cockpit, in her seat behind the copilot, she loaded data cards with flight plans and ran her hands swiftly along what looked like a thousand switches on a board, pressing knobs and flipping levers lightning-fast, doing her preflight check. She ran back down the stairs to help maintenance with the repair to save time because everything was now running late, and also because she knows how to fix that particular problem, having been in maintenance before engineering. The pilots and the ground crew respectfully listened or deferred to everything she said. Though it was a challenging start, at this point in her career, she says, “I don’t encounter second-guessing.” At 11:11 a.m., the plane in the air, she went into the tiny bathroom and changed the shirt and underwear beneath her flight suit because she’d sweated through them.

“I really love what I do, though the deployment rate is high,” Kirkbride says — this is her sixth. Once, she did four in 13 months. She loves the airmen beneath her. “I definitely want to see people grow and help give them the best experience possible,” she says. “We all have a part to drop bombs on bad people.” “It’s cool to be with flights that are actually flying and doing stuff,” says Webster. “It makes me feel good that my job does some badass stuff.”

“It makes me feel as if we have a purpose,” Seubert says of accounting for what bombs are dropped by whom and where and what’s left in the base’s munitions storage. “It’s rewarding knowing we’re supporting arming aircraft.” Granted, all of these interviews are being witnessed by an Air Force communications handler, but these women seem genuinely unconcerned with her, and also, the many times and ways over many days that they say and generally show how they’re enjoying their jobs make it clear that they mean it.

Here on Al Dhafra, they are free to be in charge. They are free, at least in these particular (notably cisgender) women’s experiences, to fraternize without judgment. Free to lift weights and run laps with their male colleagues as friendly equals. Free, in the case of Webster’s 19-year-old best friend, to be a lesbian and talk openly about gay sex and relationships without any harassment or even side looks during a smoke break with her straight coworkers. They are free to watch movies, frequently Moana, on the TVs in their work buildings during downtime on their shifts, as many times in a row as they like — so many times in Webster’s unit that when someone starts it up again early one morning, another airman gets up complaining it’s too many times and disconnects the hard drive that’s playing it. (He puts in a DVD of Aladdin instead.)

<cite class="credit">Senior Airman Erica Webster, a communications technician, applies makeup on her bed in the cramped quarters she shares.</cite>
Senior Airman Erica Webster, a communications technician, applies makeup on her bed in the cramped quarters she shares.

These women feel free to be women here, whatever that looks like (within the 200-plus pages of regulation) for them: short hair or very long hair or no makeup (like Kirkbride) or heavily filled-in brows (like Webster, who wears mascara and eyebrow pencil on deployment but way more makeup at home, since in the heat here her foundation would melt right off her face). They are not free from the threat of sexual assault — there are signs in the women’s (and men’s) communal bathrooms that warn them and tell them how to get help — but let’s be honest: They are not free from that anywhere. They are largely free even to be, in this air war, on this base in another country, oblivious to the facts and impacts of war itself.

At the time I visit, planes from Al Dhafra are regularly dropping bombs on presumed ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. When I ask Seubert, who is arming those planes with those bombs, if she ever thinks about killing people, she says, “Not really as much as you would think. We just give munitions to uploaders. We don’t actually see, except on the news, what happens with everything. I’ve never really thought about that part of the job.” When I ask her about the military’s own assessment that 484 civilians were unintentionally killed in the mission’s strikes up to that time, she says she’s “never heard anything like that.” Neither had Maksim, the senior intel officer on base.

Despite the grueling schedules, restrictive rules, and actual war that are part of their deployment, the work these four women do is rewarding and giving them what they came for: meaning. Personal space. Adventure. College classes, confidence, and world travel. When Maksim’s deployment is up, she’ll go back to serving part-time in the National Guard alongside whatever civilian career she starts. Though she’s not obligated to serve, she wants to stay in the military. Why? “So I can do stuff like this, honestly.” And the corporate job she had before she came here? “I don’t think it was the most positive environment for a female.”

Editor’s note: This story represents the experiences of these officers and airmen at a moment in time, specifically June 2017. Ranks and deployments, which have changed in the interim, are accurate as of the time of the reporting. A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Allure. For fashion credits, see Shopping Guide. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.

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