Five Liberty Wing aviators participate in historical WASP event

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Veronica A. Aceveda
  • 512th AW Public Affairs
When the request came out in February looking for volunteers to escort WASPs in Washington D.C., the 512th Airlift Wing didn't hesitate to send five female aviators from the 512th Operations Group.

Nearly 70 years after becoming the first women to fly American military aircraft, Women Air Force Service Pilots and their families gathered in the nation's capitol to be presented the Congressional Gold Medal, most posthumously.

The mix of Liberty Wing pilots and loadmasters were each assigned to accompany one WASP and serve as their personal escort during the March 9-10 event.

Master Sgt. Marti Stansbury, a C-17 loadmaster, escorted 93-year-old Dorothy Kocher-Olson, whose nickname used to be "Little Dottie," because of her petite frame.
Sergeant Stansbury said despite her age, she was very mobile and definitely full of spunk.

"Firecracker doesn't even begin to describe the pizzazz in Ms. Olson," she said. "This is a lady that learned how to fly at a fair in 1939. She was so excited to be in D.C. and finally be acknowledged."

After the WASPs were disbanded in 1944, their records were reportedly sealed and stored in the archives for more than 30 years, and they were denied veterans' status for 35 years.

"These are the women that paved the way for today's female aviators," said Sergeant Stansbury. "It took them a long time, and they had to be better to prove themselves."

Ms. Olson, who became a WASP when she was 26-years-old, preferred flying fighter aircraft. She later joined the AF Reserve, retiring as a first lieutenant in 1956. At that time, women had to pay their own travel expenses to the school house; and when the program ended, they were responsible for paying their own way home as well, relayed Sergeant Stansbury from a first-hand account of Ms. Olson.

Sergeant Stansbury, who joined the military in 1991, added how surprising it was that many of the WASPs were continuously thanking her and the other AF women escorts for their part in today's military.

"If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be in the service where I am today," she said. "They're just amazing."

As thousands gathered for the public ceremony March 10 in the capitol's new Visitor's Center, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly said it was the largest crowd in attendance for that type of event and that they had to turn people away.

One of the guest speakers for the event was Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female AF Thunderbird pilot. She was a key contributor in shaping the WASP Gold Medal Bill, which was signed by President Barack Obama last year.

Of the 300 surviving WASPs, about 200 attended the medal presentation.

The U.S. Mint casted one gold medal, which was donated to the Smithsonian Institute. About 1,100 bronze medal replicas of the gold medal were made for each of the WASPs.

Deanie Parrish, associate director of Wings Across America, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the WASPs during the ceremony; but, each of the escorts, including the ones from the Liberty Wing, were surprised to learn they would be responsible for actually bestowing the individual medal to the WASP they were escorting.
"It was an exceptional honor," said Capt. Marci Matthews, a C-5 pilot from the 709th AS who escorted 87-year-old Anne Lesnikowski. "I got to present the country's highest civilian honor to a woman, who for so many years was pushed to the side following her contribution."

In front of Ms. Lesnikowski's 18 family members, Captain Matthews chose to perform her presentation in front of the Pledge of Allegiance wall inside the capitol's new welcome center. She said it was very emotional and touching.

"On behalf of the Air Force, I want to thank you for the service you did for our country and for paving the way for women like me, I present you with this medal," Captain Matthews said to Ms. Lesnikowski. "Admittedly, I got a little teary eyed , but I went on to salute her and present her with a 512th OG coin, which she thought was great."

Like Sergeant Stansbury, Captain Matthews also heard some sign-of-the-times testimonies from the World War II era, including how Ms. Lesnikowski became a WASP in the first place.

"On a pamphlet, she had seen an attractive woman advertising the WASP program," said Captain Matthews. "If the woman on the ad hadn't been as good looking as she was, her father would not have approved her participation, but because she was, he did."

The other three 512th AW members who attended to the WASPs and witnessed a part of history are Lt. Col. Theresa Cave, Capt. Anita Westwerner and Master Sgt. Michelle Hite.
"We were so busy, and so many people were there that we hardly had a chance to get together," said Sergeant Stansbury. "But, we did manage to get together long enough for a photo."

Now that the WASPs have the same honor as other historical figures such as Rosa Parks and Neil Armstrong, they're back in their hometowns all across the nation. But for some, like Sergeant Stansbury, the impact of escorting the WASPs goes far beyond the two-day event. The loadmaster has been invited to attend Ms. Olson's 94th birthday party in Tacoma, Wash., this summer.

"We've actually been Skyping, which is amusing since Ms. Olson uses a hearing device and I talk fast," said Sergeant Stansbury, who explained how Ms. Olson had actually been completely deaf for 30 years from flying and from a dental incident. "The fact that she uses the latest in technological advances such as her new hearing device implant and Skype shows what a true pioneer she truly is.

"I would've been completely happy spending an hour with them but to have a couple of days with them was an immeasurable experience," she added. "I'm so appreciative to the wing for allowing me to be surrounded by a group of phenomenal ladies."