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Even after remarkable 32-year career, general continues to mentor, inspire

  • Published
  • By Annette Crawford
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

Eighteen-year-old Susan Desjardins had a dilemma. The high school senior was searching for a college in the Northeast – Smith, Mount Holyoke, Dartmouth – places not too far from home.

But years of saving her money from waitressing and babysitting weren’t even a drop in the bucket for what she would need to swing those tuitions. And with an older brother at the Maine Maritime Academy and two younger sisters with their own college dreams, she knew it would be a challenge for her family. But then fate – along with some excellent timing – stepped in with Public Law 94-106, the groundbreaking decision that allowed women to be admitted to the all-male service academies. Suddenly, the U.S. Air Force Academy was an option for the college-bound senior, who was set to graduate from high school in June 1976.

“[My dad] suggested, with my mom’s concurrence – or trepidation, one or the other – in his words: ‘Let’s see if we can get in. Let’s try it,’” Desjardins recalled. “I got an appointment in April of my senior year and about five days after graduating from Portsmouth High School I was on an airplane headed to Colorado Springs. I had never been west of New York, and that was my second airplane ride ever. That’s how it all started.”

The “it” Desjardins referred to was an extraordinary 32-year career in the U.S. Air Force, one that would take the New Hampshire native all around the world, rising through the ranks to major general. Retired since 2012, Desjardins admitted she knew very little about the academy before arriving there.

“I don’t know that I had any idea of what I was getting into,” she said, referencing the pre-internet world of the mid-1970s.

“The amount of information that is available now to young men and women who want to go to the academy – the preparatory information, the programs, and the orientations they can have now – they just know so much more,” Desjardins said, adding that a lower attrition rate is also a byproduct of that information.

“Our class started with around 1,500 and we graduated with just under 1,000. Started with 157 women and graduated 98. So a 40 percent attrition rate was not uncommon for both men and women. These days, you’ve got an attrition rate of maybe 20 percent, sometimes even less. I attribute that to the information that’s out there,” she said.

When Desjardins arrived at the academy, she initially didn’t have dreams of flying.

“I developed that desire to be a pilot while I was there. It was one of those things that if you’re going to be in the Air Force and you’re qualified, then you ought to be a pilot,” she said.

Desjardins graduated from the academy in 1980 with a degree in international affairs and political science. Then it was off to undergraduate pilot training at Laughlin AFB, flying the T-37 and T-38 jet trainers, and on to Castle AFB, California, where she learned to fly the KC-135A.

“I started out in the KC-135A which was the ‘steam jet.’ It had water injection in order meet our take-off requirements,” she explained. “I flew that during the Cold War so we served alert, and we had hard crews.”

Strategic Air Command’s “hard crew” policy meant that the entire crew – aircraft commander, copilot, navigator and boom operator – flew together, deployed together, pulled alert together, and went on leave at the same time.

“Then I went from an old airplane to the KC-10 which at that time was just rolling off the assembly line. That was like driving a new car – still had that new car smell. American Airlines did the initial cadre training which involved much more simulator time than previous aircraft.  That was really the beginning of much less time in the aircraft and much more time in the simulators for the entire Air Force,” she said.

Desjardins then returned to flying the KC-135 while she was commander of the 912th Air Refueling Squadron at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, in the late 1990s. Now designated as the KC-135R, the aircraft had been re-engined.

“Frankly, it was almost overpowered. It was like a rocket,” she commented.

She then made the transition from tankers to cargo aircraft.

“The C-5 was a dream to fly … a big Cadillac once it got up into the air. It was so massive but it moved through the air very gracefully. I thought it was an amazing airplane,” she said. “Of course, the most difficult thing about flying the C-5 doesn’t have anything to do with getting it into the air – it’s taxiing it. You can’t see your wingtips. There was more than one time that I had the loadmaster open the doors and look out and tell me where my wings were.”

The final aircraft she flew was the C-17.

“It’s an absolute workhorse, as evidenced by the most recent airlift from Afghanistan. What an extraordinary feat! Each of the different conflicts that we were involved with really crystalized and maximized the capability of that airplane,” she said.

As Desjardins progressed throughout her career, she began to see changes in the dynamics of the Air Force.

“I saw more and more women – whether it was in leadership positions, team leaders or as supervisors. Then the combat exclusion was lifted. I went from being the only woman pilot in a squadron to 10 women pilots in a squadron. Even though we were still the minority, I think that the more people saw the results, the more proof was in the pudding that we could do the job,” she said.

“I think what helped was more women getting out into the workforce, so now you had young men whose moms worked, you had dads whose daughters were bright and ambitious and wanted to do everything their brothers were doing. You also had men who were married to bright ambitious women who had careers. So you saw this change over time and then you turned around and said ‘Wow, there’s more of us and we’re doing well,’” she said.

Desjardins added that she served under several commanders who made a point of mentoring her and not just using her for tokenism.

“They would suggest to women, ‘You should go for this or try this or would you like to compete for this?’ Had it not been suggested to me, maybe I wouldn’t have done it,” she explained, adding that a major at her squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, asked her if she wanted to compete to fly the KC-10.

“Well, I hadn’t thought I would fly the KC-10. I was happy flying the KC-135, but he opened up that door, and there was more and more of that as time went on,” she said.

One world event in particular illustrated to her how far women had come.

“During 1986 they were calling us from all over Europe – KC-10s, KC-135s – to converge on bases in England because we were about to do the Libyan raid,” she recalled. “There were about eight or 10 women who were part of these crews, and there were probably 50 crews or so. There was discussion about ‘Well, women can’t fly; this is a combat support operation. We’ve got to pull the women off of these crews.’ Then the guys were saying, “I only have one co-pilot. I only have one pilot. I only have one navigator or one boom operator. She’s it. We need them all.’ And they needed all the tankers they could get; it was a very tanker-intensive operation. At the end of the day, they decided that we were indeed needed; I think that was a bit of an adjustment. We were an integral part of the operation.”

Desjardins said another defining moment was when she was selected to be the first female commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy.

“I know that I saw a big difference from when I graduated from the academy in 1980 and then went back in 2005. To see the numbers of women in leadership positions and doing so well, it was extraordinary to me,” she said. “That was a real eye opener and in such a good way. These women were so confident – confidence that I didn’t have as a cadet. Seeing them so self-assured, they were unstoppable. It was quite a time.”

The general said the thought of becoming the commandant while she was a cadet never occurred to her.

“Completely unattainable, not even a pipe dream. At that point in time, I just knew I didn’t want to get called to the commandant’s office,” she said, laughing.

“I had no idea I would ever go back in that capacity. At the time that I was told I would be going back I was the wing commander at Charleston and we were in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. We were running hard, and we had a lot of crews on the road at any one time. All of these C-17s were being gainfully employed. Everything was going east, everything we could support – troops, equipment – and it was operations, operations, operations, and all of a sudden I got this assignment to go west, to a training base. It was an about-face for sure,” she said.

Desjardins had positive memories of the nearly three years she served as commandant, from December 2005 to October 2008.

“We had an amazing team there. The superintendent was Lt. Gen. John Regni, who was a 1973 grad. He had a daughter who was a 2003 grad. Brig. Gen. Dana Born, a 1983 grad, was the dean (the first woman to hold that position) and she was amazing. The athletic director was Dr. Hans Mueh, a 1966 grad. The air base wing commander, Brig. Gen. Jimmy MacMillan, was just awesome. This team worked together extremely well,” she said.

The commandant’s role at the academy is being responsible for all military training, to include the character and leadership development, honor code, summer training programs, customs and courtesies, and more. Desjardins said her greatest accomplishment while at the academy was operationalizing the training.

“What we tried to do was take every task and training event and operationalize it to the point where the cadets could use this training immediately when they went into the operational Air Force,” she explained. “The things that they would learn would not just be busy work or time fillers. It was an arrow they could actually have in their quiver to use in the operational Air Force from Day One.”

She said the cadets absolutely loved and grabbed onto this concept.

“At the time, we were involved in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and I would always tell the cadets ‘We want you to be as close to a full-up round we can get you. You won’t be a burden to your unit or your squadron when you get there but you’ll be ready to go.’ That made sense to them, and if the training didn’t make that kind of sense we would try and change it so that it would,” she said.

“Putting the military back into the military academy – those were marching orders that I had – and to bring back some of the traditions that had slid away but did have an operational purpose. So we brought back some of those as well,” she said. “This was a tough time for all the service academies because we had a lot of social issues going on – sexual assault issues, religious freedom issues, lots of all of those things that are tough. The other thing that we worked on really, really hard was to get the Air Force Academy off the front page, by focusing on what was right and fixing what was wrong. So it was a very, very rewarding experience, lots more rewarding than I thought it would be.”

That rewarding and fulfilling experience still rings true today.

“I still have people – who were cadets and now are majors and lieutenant colonels – who occasionally touch base with me or ask me to write a letter of recommendation or something like that. I don’t mind doing that. I’m proud of every single one of them we graduated during those years,” she said.

One former cadet said Desjardins’ impact on future generations of officers can’t be overestimated. Lt. Col. Carl R. Chen, now commander of the 47th Comptroller Squadron at Laughlin AFB, said that when the general arrived at the academy, the cadet wing was reeling from national attention they received during a series of high-profile disciplinary incidents.

“Our morale had been impacted by several big changes in leadership personalities and approaches in a short amount of time. Then-Brig. Gen. Desjardins arrived to much fanfare as the first female commandant of cadets in the Air Force Academy’s history. She proceeded rapidly to address some of the most difficult problems the academy has encountered in the modern era,” Chen said. “It wasn’t until later in life that I fully understood the magnitude of what she must have carried in that role.”

Chen said his first personal interaction with the general was a chance hallway conversation after an event she held for a group of cadets.

“We got on the topic of one of her academy roommates that I happened to have previously met, and General Desjardins asked that I email her directly with her old roommate’s contact information. That was the first time I had ever emailed a general officer, and I was terrified,” Chen recalled. “However, her personable manner put me at ease and helped me realize that generals are people, too. She continued to check in on me whenever I saw her on campus, and her one-on-one leadership style is something I still talk about with younger officers today.”

Nearly 15 years after he graduated from the academy, Chen ran into General Desjardins again at the Order of Daedalians headquarters at JBSA-Randolph. She had just been named to the organization’s board of directors.

“I was ecstatic to see General Desjardins on the board of an organization to which I owe much of my professional growth, but I was not surprised at all that she would continue to serve in the development of pilots, aircrews and officers as the military aviation profession evolves to meet the demands of modern warfare,” he said. “General Desjardins inspired me when I was younger, and she continues to inspire me today. I am proud to have been one of her cadets.”

These days, Desjardins’ life is anything but quiet. She lives in Exeter, New Hampshire – the town she was born in – with her husband and their two black labs that “demand a lot of our attention.” She enjoys hiking, running, travel, art and mentoring young people interested in serving in the military.

In addition to serving as a national director with the Daedalians, she is a board member with a federal credit union and healthcare-related organizations. She is also a governing trustee with the Falcon Foundation, which provides scholarships to college or preparatory schools for motivated young people who want to enter the Air Force Academy and make the Air Force a career.

The former command pilot doesn’t fly anymore, but living close to Pease Air National Guard Base affords her the opportunity to still enjoy being around airplanes.

“Every once in a while, I’ll see an early morning tanker take off, and then I’ll hear the fighters take off and it will be just dawn. It will be a crystal-clear sky and the stars are still out. I get a little bit nostalgic but then I go, 'Okay, wait a minute, if I had a 6 o’clock takeoff, it means they were up at like 2, and the maintainers were up all night.' I think it would be good to be up there, but not the four hours prior.”

Desjardins is often asked to be a guest speaker at community and patriotic events.

“I always speak with gratitude and tremendous respect for those who have served, those serving now and those who will serve.”

Grateful for the opportunities that she has had, Desjardins says she is honored to be called a veteran.

“I am confident in our future and optimistic we as a military and a nation will meet the challenges ahead. With today’s young men and women leading the charge, we are in very good hands.”

 

 

Read Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins' official Air Force bio HERE.