Airman celebrates career spanning 35 years

  • Published
  • By Capt. Matthew Chism
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center
Nurse, Secretary, Maintainer, Victim Advocate, Budget Technician...Airman.

Sandy Lewis is all of those things and so much more to the people who surround her. She celebrated 30 years of federal service in a room full of coworkers and friends at the U.S Air Force Expeditionary Center in April.

This was the second career Lewis started with the Air Force, retiring from the USAF Reserves in 2013 after 33 years of service.

Her journey began by chasing a desire to do more and Lewis said she is excited about the future.

Harrisburg, Pa., 1980

Lewis moved a lot as a child due to the changing positions her father accepted as a career civil service employee. The family of four settled down in Harrisburg, Pa., which at this time was still struggling to rebound after the 1979 nuclear accident less than 16 miles away at Three Mile Island. The fear and uncertainty in the aftermath of the accident is thought to have caused an exodus of tens of thousands of people from the area, but her family chose to stay.

Lewis graduated from high school and found a job working in a hospital, but she struggled with an internal calling to do more.

The lessons her father taught her about his job, perseverance, and work ethic continued to nudge her in a new direction. Lewis decided she wanted to make a radical change in her life. As would happen to her again and again over the next 35 years, Lewis wanted to try something new. She was going to join the military.

Early career

Lewis enlisted in the USAF Reserves as an aircraft maintainer in 1980, five years after the end of the Vietnam War. She was one of nearly 14,000 women who chose to join the USAF at a time when the force totaled 558,000 Airmen.

"I just wanted to do something different, I wanted to see the world," said Lewis. "I entered the Reserves and I chose Dover Air Force Base, because I had relatives that lived in Delaware."

Lewis met her husband, an active duty C-5 Galaxy Aircraft Maintenance crew chief, at that first duty station while both were supporting the same aircraft.

The couple later received orders for a Permanent Change of Station to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. where Lewis found a USAF Reserve position with USAF Special Operations Command. They stayed there for 5 years before again PCS'ing to then McGuire Air Force Base. A chance run in and the high costs of living in the area gave her the desire to enter civil service.

"When I got to McGuire I was doing an exercise and one of the guys says 'you know, I'm looking for a secretary, it's a civil service position,'" said Lewis. "So I went in, and at that time you could self-nominate, so I self-nominated for the position and got into civil service in 1985."

Lewis didn't work as a secretary long before she wanted to try a new job. With her background from the USAF Reserves she transitioned to a civilian Maintenance position where she saw an issue.

"They had a system there, it was this big board where you had to track all this maintenance on the different aircraft, and it was all jumbled up," said Lewis. "So I thought, 'I've got to do something!' So I revamped the whole board so that now all they had to do was move magnets around and they could track where this part is and the status of whatever aircraft they were repairing."

Again, not being satisfied by her daily routine, Lewis moved into a position on base with the 21st Air Force Headquarters. There she was a part of the team that tested the Defense Red Switch Network for the USAF. This system went on to provide a reliable and secure defense communication network for U.S. Department of Defense leaders.

"I went into that position as a secretary as well," said Lewis. "I was on the ground floor for the beginning of what was called a Red Switch, which are secure lines. 21st Air Force was the test location for the Air Force's STU's and the Red switch. Everybody wanted to be there. That's when we started bringing in the computer age too; we got rid of those IBM selector typewriters."

Finding her niche

Lewis decided to change the course of her USAF Reserve career around the same time that she began working at 21st AF by cross-training into the Aero-medical Evacuation career field. This career move brought her full circle from her first job working at the hospital in Harrisburg.

Lewis learned to harness the thrill, excitement and even fear of working on teams that provided medical support to service members in grim situations. Lewis described a deployment to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War that solidified her desire to remain a nurse through the remainder of her USAF Reserve career.

"It was a deployment to Riyadh, after I transitioned to being an Aeromedical troop," said Lewis. "I'll never forget, our plane landed at the King of Saudi Arabia's airport and we looked out the window and there were these big guns sticking right at us. Just being over there, it was scary, but the adrenaline was so pumped. I never imagined myself being able to do anything like that. That's when I saw that I work very well under pressure."

Lewis took a secretary position in 1999 at what is now the USAF EC. She currently works in the command as a budget technician where she says "the pressure of it is fun!"

"We were a very small section when I got here," said Lewis. "You had to pick up tasks and help each other. One of the things that they were doing was a complete renovation of this building. You had a ton of contractors everywhere and being the secretary you are in the center of everything. I said to myself I really kind of like doing this kind of stuff."

"Now I'm dealing with million dollar projects," said Lewis. "I have to manage millions of dollars and I have to make sure everything balances. I was scared at first, but I said 'I can do this.'"

Lewis credits her drive, longevity and success to her family, the supervisors who pushed her, and the diverse background she gained by working in many different positions over the years.

"There are a lot of things that started from me being a secretary and being exposed to so many different things," said Lewis. "If you're given something, you give it the best try you can and you just take something from each person you're around and you learn from them."

Lewis said she worked hard to make everyone proud who made it possible for her to chase her dreams.

"I appreciate my family for being there, for accepting my job, for understanding that it is my job," said Lewis. "I am proud of them for allowing me to do this. Their support has meant a lot."

"It has made me proud to be part of an organization, part of the United States Air Force, part of a country that is so accepting of everybody," said Lewis. "I cannot believe 30 years has gone this fast, I really can't. I am honored to be able to do this."