WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — Before Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger begins overseeing a historic reshaping of the biggest command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, she made a little history herself.
Wolfenbarger, 54, had a fourth star pinned on her Tuesday, to become the first women in the Air Force to achieve the highest rank. It came 32 years after the “hometown girl” who graduated from Beavercreek High School was part of the first graduating class of 97 female cadets in 1980 at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“I am humbled, I am honored, I am ready, and I am really, really excited,” she told an audience of about 1,000 who witnessed the historic promotion and change of command ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donnelly and Air Force commanding generals from around the world attended. Gen. Donald Hoffman, outgoing AFMC commander and a former F-16 pilot, retired at the ceremony 38 years to the day he started his Air Force career as a second lieutenant.
Wolfenbarger will have the responsibility to manage AFMC, a command with a $60 billion budget and a workforce of more than 80,000 service wide, as it consolidates 12 directorates into five across nine bases by Oct. 1. AFMC, responsible for the testing, development and acquisition of equipment and systems, employs about 13,700 people at Wright-Patterson, or about 9,900 civilians and 3,800 military personnel.
Budget cuts drove the consolidation plan leaders say will leave a leaner and smaller but still capable Air Force but has left some defense contractors concerned about the future. AFMC’s budget remained largely the same between last year and this one, but the future remains unknown as political leaders argue over federal budget cuts, officials said.
Wolfenbarger, a former AFMC vice commander who had key roles in the development of the F-22 Raptor, B-2 Spirit and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, said the restructuring ranks as her top priority.
“Our mission is as serious today as it ever has been,” she said.
While the general will confront both budgetary constraints and a massive restructuring that will lead to the reduction of about 1,000 jobs service wide by this fall, AFMC at Wright-Patterson will gain more responsibility with a new Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said Maurice “Mo” MacDonald, the Dayton Development Coalition’s vice president of military affairs.
The new center will expand the base’s role as an acquisitions hub. “That’s a significant undertaking,” he said, adding “AFMC is very susceptible to budget cuts because of the budget they work with.”
Richard Eckhardt, a retired AFMC civilian deputy comptroller and chief financial officer, said employees will face a learning curve with the changes and want certainty in their jobs.
“It’s a period of change, and anytime you go through a period of change you have challenges,” he said.
Wolfenbarger’s historic accomplishment marks another major aviation-related milestone in the Miami Valley since the Wright brothers invented the airplane, said Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.
“We had another piece of history created today,” he said. “The Air Force didn’t assign it’s first female four-star general to a place that’s not going to count.”
Wolfenbarger is one of a handful of women who have reached the highest levels of command in the U.S. military. Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, commander of the Army Materiel Command, was the first woman to achieve four-star rank in 2008.
“It finally says that women are being recognized for their contribution and their capabilities to be leaders in our armed services, that it’s really not just a man’s world,” said Mary D. Ross, an Army and Gulf War veteran and national commander of the Women Veterans of America in Nashville, Tenn.
“They are earning these positions out of their own merit, not just because they are women,” said Susan Feland, president of Academy Women, which represents female military officers.
Wolfenbarger’s promotion follows the Pentagon opening more roles to females to serve in combat in recent weeks.
Opening the door to more combat-related jobs will remove a barrier to promotion for women, said Feland, program director at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business’s Center for Leadership Development and Research.
Women have proven they can handle the expanded roles in Iraq and Afghanistan and in past conflicts, said Wilma L. Vaught, a retired Air Force brigadier general and Vietnam veteran.
“The big thing I think that we’re seeing happening with women in the service is they have a greater opportunity to compete on a level playing field, and the playing field hasn’t always been level and that makes a big difference,” said Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service Memorial Foundation in Arlington, Va.
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2363 or bbarber@ DaytonDailyNews.com.