OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. --
As for a path to command of an Air Force wing, Colonel Virginia Gaglio took the atypical route. She may have taken the long road, but along the way, her journey was marked with memorable signposts that, after 33 years, add up to a legacy of pride and professionalism.
Growing up in Houston, Gaglio’s family would frequently visit the San Antonio area. Not coming from a military family, it was on one of these vacations where she first saw a woman who was an Airman. “I was 12 and on the river walk – it was the first time I had ever seen women in military uniforms” she said. “They were Airmen on their day pass from basic training. They were all walking around in their blues and I remember thinking that was neat and mentioned it to my parents that I wanted to join someday.”
Years later, she would recall that memory when hearing an Air Force recruiting advertisement that mentioned money for college. Now at 19 years old, Gaglio was reminded of how much she had liked the idea of joining and enlisted.
“I started out as an Avionics Mechanic on F-15’s”, she said. After technical training at Lowry AFB, Colo., for electronic fundamentals and Tyndall AFB, Fla. for field training, Gaglio ended up at her first base. “I got my first assignment to Minot AFB, N.D. – it was a Tactical Air Command squadron on a Strategic Air Command base – a small little F-15 squadron.”
It wasn’t long before she would find herself at Otis for the first time – on a TDY.
“Shortly after I got my 5-level, I found out that our squadron was going to be closed down, we were all going to be re-assigned. Our aircraft were going to be transferred to the Air National Guard at Otis and they were looking for a team to assist while the mechanics there got qualified on the new airframe.”
After her TDY to Otis, Gaglio returned to Minot and received orders for her next assignment – Luke AFB, Ariz. When she arrived at the new base she was informed that they had too many mechanics in the Avionics shop and was given a choice – cross-train to be on the servicing crew for crew chiefs on the graveyard shift or accept a position as permanent “snacko” or day room monitor.
“I wanted to work on the jets, so I went on the graveyard shift and worked with the crew chiefs – it was a hard assignment but I got to learn the rest of the aircraft and it really served me well later on when I became a maintenance officer.”
Although training with the crew chiefs was challenging and rewarding duty, Gaglio was looking for a change. “I found out I could use my G.I. Bill benefits if I was in the Guard. I had spent three months at Otis and I really liked how they treated people in the Guard – I really enjoyed being there.” With that, she continued, “I called them up and asked if they had any positions.”
She would transfer to the Massachusetts Air National Guard in 1989.
“I tried to get a technician job when I first got here. I wasn’t selected. I was very discouraged. I applied for several positions before I got a full-time job here. I’ve found that some of the best things that have happened to me in my career were the result of not getting the jobs I wanted at the time.”
“I had gotten close to finishing my bachelor’s degree – my desire was to become a pilot, but I was at a base where they flew fighters and that wasn’t open to women yet. I had looked at other units but someone had given me the advice to ‘become an officer first, transfer second’. If I couldn’t become a pilot, maintenance officer was my second choice.”
Soon, Gaglio traded in her Sergeant stripes for Lieutenant bars and took her place as a maintenance officer. Looking back, she said “I really owe a debt of gratitude to Col. Mike Kelley – he took a chance – he hired the first female maintenance officer here. There really wasn’t one that wasn’t in either personnel or medical. He took a big chance in selecting me – it was a really big deal when he hired me.”
“As a young officer, the only way you are going to learn to lead is if you have good Chiefs helping you. I had a lot of them. Bob Harvey, Roy Piver and Senior Master Sgt. Jack Arthur.”
Eventually, Gaglio got a full time position, as a maintenance officer overseeing the Maintenance Support Flight.
Gaglio would spend the next several years, filling positions within the maintenance community, learning and growing as an officer. “You learn how to become a more mature officer by other officers helping you. Rick Dupuis, Don Quenneville, Elliot Worcester, Bruce Gilpin – they really helped me grow as an officer.”
Eventually, Gaglio would get her first opportunity to command – the 102nd Aircraft Generation Squadron, which she cites as one of her favorite commands. “It’s probably only number two to being wing commander. I had a very special place in my heart for flightline maintenance.”
Gaglio was the commander of the organization on September 11, 2001. “Watching the response of our mechanics on 9/11 – generating aircraft – watching so many of our traditional guardsmen that worked for me drop their civilian jobs and run out here to generate aircraft at a moment’s notice, and for us to do it flawlessly – it was an amazing thing to watch happen.”
On the importance of command at the squadron level –
“General Goldfein talks about the squadron being where the rubber meets the road, and I agree with him completely – I felt that was where I had the most direct effect on the morale of the people, and the culture, and getting things done – I really feel like I owned it more than at any other point thereafter. I feel like even at the group command, or the wing level – I never had the direct effect on the Airmen that I led, as much as I did when I was a squadron commander.”
“Shortly after being demobilized after 9/11, I was asked to take the assignment of being the Mission Support Flight commander. I didn’t really want it, but it was the best assignment for my learning experience that I could ever have.”
Gaglio said, “It was the key to preparing me to be a more effective commander at a higher level. If you are going to lead at a high level, understanding how to take care of people, and the processes involved, are the key to being successful. It was a hard assignment being in personnel, but it was one of the best I’d ever been in.”
Several years would pass and the base would face its next challenge – the Base Realignment and Closure Committee. Soon the jets were gone and the focus became finding places for Airmen to fit into the wing’s new mission of Intelligence.
After ensuring the Airmen of the wing were well taken care of, Gaglio made the move to the new mission herself. “I had come from a technical background, in Avionics, but when you become a maintenance officer you’re not really working on the jet anymore, you’re supervising – and the idea of becoming an intelligence officer and being back where there’s technical stuff going on, and being able to be a part of that, that really excited me.”
Gaglio would go on to become the deputy commander for the new mission’s group, a pivot that would lead to command of the 102nd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, and eventually vice wing commander and ultimately command of the 102nd Intelligence Wing.
“When I was the group commander and I was asked to be the vice wing commander I thought ‘wow, I might even have a shot at being wing commander.’ I think about the future, and the possibilities – a lot – but I never went much past my current assignment – maybe one up at any given time.”
One step at a time, the onetime Avionics Mechanic took the steps necessary to prepare her for the next job, the next rank, the next level of responsibility.
“Looking back at my early years as an Airman, my early years as an officer and throughout my career – I never woke up one day and thought I was going to be a colonel. I never really thought I’d get past the grade that I was at, at the time. I didn’t have aspirations of being an officer until I was already a Staff Sgt. and had finished my degree. Once I became an officer, I never really thought I’d make it past captain or major. I never really had aspirations for all that until I got to the point where I could think about the next step – so maybe I should get ready, just in case.”
“I always filled all the squares just in case an opportunity became available. I took the advice of my mentors – they all told me, ‘don’t wait to be eligible for the next rank, in order to fill the square.’ I always got everything in line for what I was supposed to do before I was eligible to be promoted – so it was never a question if I was eligible.”
With that, she imparted some advice for younger Airmen.
“Always be ready – so when opportunity knocks, you can jump on it – as opposed to saying ‘well, I don’t have this complete, or I haven’t done that’. That was never a question for me – I always got everything done ahead of time.”
As an Airman, working on aircraft on the flightline at Otis, to now being the wing commander – it’s clear that there are paths for anyone to ascend – you just need the motivation to take the first step, and the fortitude to keep leaning forward.
Looking at Gaglio’s career path, it is a combination of deliberate choices, preparation and arguably, opportunities that weren’t always obvious. As she points out herself, “Sometimes when one door closes, it’s because another one is going to open that is better. Every job I’ve had, whether I’ve liked it or not, prepared me down the road for the next opportunity.”
Work hard, fill your squares and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves – maybe you too can one day be a wing commander like Colonel Virginia Gaglio.