Colonel Melinda Sutton – Part Industrial Engineer, Part Flight Surgeon – all Inspiration

  • Published
  • By Timothy Sandland
  • 102nd Intelligence Wing

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, MA -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is not a new concept here at the 102nd Intelligence Wing. With a trifecta of technology-driven missions, the wing and its Airmen are highly-trained and highly-skilled in the world of STEM.

What one may not realize is that these areas are not the sole domain of ISR or cyber engineering; STEM envelops many of the operations and those Airmen who promulgate the undertakings and the skills they use to execute those missions.

One such example is Colonel Melinda Sutton.

Sutton, who serves as the wing’s Chief of Aerospace Medicine, was recently selected as the National Guard BEYA Stripes and Stars Award winner for 2022.

What many here in the wing may not realize is that Sutton, who is medical doctor, started her career as an industrial engineer with Air Force Civil Engineering.

Sutton’s story started in Knoxville, Tennessee. The daughter of a Marine, military service was always in the back of her mind. The family traveled around the globe, following her father to exotic locations such as Albany, Georgia and Hawaii.

“My dad inspired me,” said Sutton. “(He) was in the Marine Corps and I always thought I would be a Marine.”

In addition to her father, Sutton spoke of the impact of her High School guidance counselor, who stopped her in the hallway one day. “We're going to sit in this office until we’ve finished the Army and Air Force ROTC scholarship applications,” said Sutton. “I owe a lot of credit to her because – she really pushed.”

Sutton went on to attend college on an ROTC scholarship at North Carolina’s A&T State University. “I wanted to go to a historically black college,” said Sutton. “Because you have people that are supposed to have similar culture doesn't mean you think the same way doesn't mean you have the same goals and I needed to see that.”

“When I got the scholarship (for Industrial Engineering,) I had to look it up,” said Sutton. “I thought oh, that's a perfect field for me you know because it is the marrying of manpower with industry. The organizational design of workstations improving efficiency – improving quality. I like that!”

Upon graduation from A&T, Sutton entered Active Duty, arriving at her first assignment with the 92nd Civil Engineering Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington.

There she was put in charge of a computer system that she had no experience on. “You learn to adapt and overcome,” said Sutton. “That was a great mentorship moment with my first supervisor – you know, patiently working on the problem-solving and project management stuff.”

“They didn't let me get away with doing just enough – they would call me back in the office and say ‘you can do better’ and ‘you’re going to do this over’ and I appreciate them for that!”

It was while she was on a deployment with the 51st Civil Engineer Squadron at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, that Sutton had an epiphany.

“It was like flipping a switch,” she said. “I went on a deployment to Team Spirit in Korea. We went out to a peanut field that we had to convert into a base.”

Sutton spent a significant amount of time with the deployed flight surgeon ensuring the appropriate locations for quarters, showers and mess facilities.

“That's when I said okay, it’s time for you to be honest with yourself – you like this (engineering) but you really, really love medicine,” said Sutton. “I just really loved all of the public health stuff. Making sure that the bugs were gone, making sure that we had the right water using the reverse osmosis water purification unit, and the medical implications of that.”

As Sutton points out, in her “hearts of hearts,” she needed to change over to medicine.

With that, she had advice for anyone making such a diametric shift in their life.

“Research what that means – know what you're getting yourself into,” said Sutton.

“Understand that it can be painful,” said Sutton, whose situation was facilitated by reduction in force. She was able to leave early and get the G.I. Bill and use it to pay for her premed prerequisite. “Without that it would've been that much more difficult – so research what it's going to take to do that I mean down to how you going to support yourself.”

She also addressed the challenges that come unsolicited.

“I had naysayers – you know, I had people say ‘do you know how long it's going to take?’ and ‘do you know how much money that's going to cost?’ and ‘do you know how old you’ll be?’”

“I don't know how long it is going to take but I'll find out,” Sutton responded with a smile.

Every career brings with it challenges and successes. For Sutton, her most enduring memories come from the operations and deployments she’s been a part of. “The camaraderie,” she said. “Having a successful deployment, being a team and having all of the teams come together.”

“When I went for Operation Iraqi Freedom and then Enduring Freedom – going over as a flight surgeon because I got to see the camp from a different perspective coming in and seeing all the key points that as a civil engineering officer we accomplished in the layout.”

The BEYA Stars and Stripes award serves not only as recognition, but as validation for Sutton.

“I was just honored and thrilled,” she said. “I'm just so glad that I was able to graduate with a degree and make use of it. It is just such a thrill to have somebody pull that back from the cockles of my past and say ‘hey you did something here.’”

Looking to the future, Sutton had a strong message for young people considering an education and career in STEM.

“Use your imagination – anything is possible and if you don't see what you believe you want to do, make a new path,” she said.

“Don't let past failures in school, if you didn't do well in math in junior high, it's a combination of factors at a time maybe you were not receptive – maybe it was a teaching style – maybe you didn't know how you learned… so give yourself another chance.”

The final word from Sutton serves as a lesson for all.

“Don't bury your dreams go for it you got the rest of your life,” said Sutton. “There's enough unintended consequences to hold you back without you holding yourself back so go for it!”