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Austin retires, McEntire may have the last WAF

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Megan Floyd
  • 169th Fighter Wing
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Lorrie Austin, an accounting liaison assigned to the 169th Comptroller Flight, and who is believed to be the last enlisted service member of the Women of the Air Force, prepares to retire with 21 years of active service from the South Carolina Air National Guard here, Feb. 26th.

The Air Force didn't allow women in their ranks at all until 1948, a year after the Air Force was formed. The WAF program was instituted to initiate women into the Air Force by allowing them to perform a small selection of careers. In 1976, the WAF was incorporated into the Air Force, which desegregated the women and men.

Austin enlisted in the WAF at the end of the Vietnam War for the education benefits. It was not a very popular time to join the military, she said.

She went through the Military Entry Processing Station at 18 years old and took the ASVAB, eventually selecting Security Police as her Air Force Specialty.

The WAF trainees were held to a different standard than the men, said Austin. For example, they attended beauty classes, hair and make-up classes and were taught etiquette in basic training.

"We didn't do arms training or anything like that [in basic training]," said Austin. "They mostly wanted us to look good in our uniform as well as perform well at our jobs."

They did complete the obstacle course, but Austin and her flight had to do it in their low-quarter shoes.  The WAF trainees were required to wear their Class A uniforms during basic training.

"We had a wraparound skirt, and we would march with it flapping around, which I thought was crazy," said Austin.

After graduating technical school, Austin received orders to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where she worked as part of the law enforcement component of the Security Police.

"There were three women in our squadron, one woman for each eight-hour shift," said Austin. "The men weren't allowed to touch females at all, so we needed a woman on duty in case we had an incident involving a female."

Being a woman in a heavily male-dominated field proved to be challenging in the 1970s.

"They were jealous," said Austin. "If you did better than the men, they would get mad. If you didn't do as well, it was because you were a woman."

There was the usual harassment from coworkers and the base populace, said Austin. Not so much sexual harassment, but just jabbing and teasing.

"You didn't have anything like the SARC or any programs that would help you," said Austin. "If you complained, you were just labeled a complainer."

She married a fellow security policeman in June of 1976 and left the Air Force to start her family.

Years later, she decided that she wanted to retire with the military and enlisted with the South Carolina Air National Guard in 1997. She didn't have to go back through basic training, but she did have to go to MEPS again and complete the duck walk and the usual physical evaluations.

"I was pleasantly surprised when I got here," said Austin. "There were women all over the place. Nobody made a big deal out of the fact that you were a woman. You were just a person doing a job."

She now works in the finance department at McEntire, and is in charge of making sure that the base's bills get paid. It's her job to collect all of the necessary paperwork from personnel here and various contractors working on base. She then submits it to the Defense Finance Accounting Service so that the government can pay the bill on time. 

There are requirements to pay at certain time periods during a contract, and if at any point a payment is missed, the government is responsible to pay interest for every day that it is late.

"I've seen other bases that have accrued thousands of dollars of interest," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Dunkin, commander of the 169th Comptroller Flight. "Because they have failed to pay in a timely manner, the government ends up losing thousands of dollars every year."

McEntire Joint National Guard Base is currently ranked number one for the least amount of overdue interest nationwide, and Austin is a big part of that.

"The most interest I've ever seen us have was $3.16 one time on one contract, and that was a fault of DFAS, not of [Austin]," said Dunkin.

The amount of money that Austin has to account for per year can be more than 60 million dollars, said Dunkin. Austin is also the person that loads the money onto all of the base's Government Purchasing Cards and ensures they do not go into default. 

"I learned at an early age, there are not a lot of things that can send a commander to jail, but money is one of them," said Dunkin. "She watches out for every commander on this base, whether they realize it or not."

Even though every commander has a resource advisor, and they have the GPC cardholders, those people can make mistakes, said Dunkin. The person that often catches those mistakes is Austin.

"She is one of the most determined and forceful personalities we have, even though people don't realize it," said Dunkin. "She does it in such an unassuming way that people don't realize how good she is at her job."

Women have come a long way since Austin first enlisted, said Dunkin. We're retiring someone now who was integrated into the Air Force from a separate service as a woman, and 41 years later women are being placed in combat roles.

"I often tell young women in the military to thank the female veterans when they see them, because they literally paved the way for their careers," said Austin.

"It's a shame that more people don't understand who she was and what she's gone through before, because it was very different," said Dunkin. "The Air Force as a whole isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than it was before."

Austin plans to move to Washington after her retirement.