Joining Air Force Made Her Top Flight Major General Didn’t Plan High-Flying Career
Tragedy, mediocrity and gender haven’t stopped Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Pamerleau from streaking into the stratosphere.
A self-described average college student who stumbled into the service with a 2.65 grade point average, Pamerleau has made the grade big-time: She now goes to work at Randolph Air Force Base as the highest-ranking of five active-duty female generals in the Air Force.
Along the way she defied the odds of making it in an Air Force that boasted just 4,991 women officers, none of them yet a general, when she joined in 1968. Later Pamerleau faced the death of a husband who took his life amid a divorce, and endured the loss of her brother, who died after being struck by a car while jogging.
“Early on in life when you deal with those kinds of situations, you learn what’s important and what’s not, and there’s a lot of perspective that you learn from going through those kinds of experiences,” the 51-year-old Pamerleau said.
“Nobody needs to feel sorry for me. If you let those things or other things consume your life, that’s what you live your life around. But my life is today and in the future because I can’t change anything in the past.”
Several hundred family, friends, and airmen decked out in dapper dress blues and green camouflage battle dress uniforms celebrated her focus on duty on an unusually cool Thursday morning outside the Air Force Personnel Center she’s commanded since Feb. 2, 1996.
Toward the end of a 36-minute ceremony, a four-member honor guard and the unfurling of a major general’s flag, Pamerleau proudly displayed a pair of shiny silver stars on each shoulder. The stars flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia last spring.
While Pamerleau told the crowd she hadn’t planned to stay in the Air Force 29 years and never imagined winging it beyond captain, her rise didn’t surprise her parents.
Truce and Mary Nelle Lewellyn fondly recall a confident, even cocky daughter who displayed a strong streak of independence.
“She was in eighth or ninth grade making a dress one evening and I said, ‘Why are you making that now?”’ recalled her father, 76, a retired Knoxville, Tenn., Christian Church Disciples of Christ minister.
“And she said, ‘I’m going to wear it tonight,’ and I said, ‘Wear it tonight?’
“And she said, ‘I can wear it anytime I want to.”’
But breaking into a graduate school and getting a master’s degree in sociology amid the fury of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s wasn’t like dress-making. With hordes of men desperate for draft deferments flooding the nation’s grad schools, students with so-so grades had to look at other options, like work.
A curious Pamerleau fell into the Air Force after meeting a recruiter who was at the University of Wyoming campus. She figured to stay in five years, long enough to find a husband and use the $15,000 in separation pay she would earn to start a family.
If Pamerleau’s decision was driven by domestic concerns, it might have been because making a career in America’s male-dominated military was still something of a foreign concept to women.
As Pamerleau entered the Air Force in 1968, 11,111 of the service’s 904,759 active-duty members were women. The first female general, Jeanne Holm, wouldn’t win her star until 1971. Today, there are 12,194 female officers and 65,285 women in an Air Force that has an active-duty strength of 381,100.
Asked if she was ever a victim of harassment or gender discrimination, a diplomatic Pamerleau acknowledged that “comments were made” when she was a young officer, but said managing such challenges is the real issue.
“I think it’s a matter that you have to set the standard and expect that it will be met, and then enforce it.”
Pamerleau takes that no-nonsense attitude with her to work. The word failure, she says, “is not in my vocabulary,” a claim her Pentagon-based boss, Lt. Gen. Michael D. McGinty, confirms.
“Susan has never met a problem she couldn’t fix,” he told the crowd, citing a performance report.
That, her parents agree, is Pamerleau in the prime of life.
“She’s always been very confident of her ability,” Lewellyn said. “If someone else could do it,” chimed in Pamerleau’s mother, Mary Nelle, “she could do it.”