In 2021, women make up nearly 17 percent of all those actively serving in the U.S. armed forces, with the Air Force leading the way – more than 21 out of every 100 Airmen are women. While this might not seem very high, statistically it is the highest percentage on record, and continues to grow – albeit slowly.
For decades, Southern Maryland has been home to a higher number of military personnel due to our close proximity to bases surrounding D.C. and the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, built back in the 1940s. In fact, between the dozens of government contractors and thousands of federal and civilian employees residing within our tri-county area, it should be no surprise that the annual Leonardtown Veteran’s Day parade is the largest celebration in all of Maryland.
Our community truly offers a unique insight into the armed forces, and there’s no better way to say thank you to those who serve than to appreciate their story. To do so, we sat down with four local military women to learn about the details of their triumphs, sacrifices, and service.
Joining the Military
Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Christina Hutchison knew she wanted to join the military since she was a child and joined after high school in 1995. “I was enrolled in community college, paying for it with student loans and I figured there was no better time to join. I didn’t hesitate to head to the recruiter and sign myself up. I have since completed my bachelor’s degree, all paid for by the G.I. Bill,” she said.
Local Army Sergeant Jewel King joined the military after seeing her stepfather’s service first-hand. “He was proud of his accomplishments and the uniform, so I wanted to experience the same for myself,” she said. “The day I enlisted I felt proud and honored to serve and protect my loved ones.”
After enlisting, of course, comes boot camp. “It was an incredibly humbling experience. I honestly learned so much about my own inner strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to get me through any adversity,” Jewel reflected.
For some, the choice to serve brings new opportunities not otherwise readily available. Growing up a self-described military brat, Technical Sergeant Jaclyn Ambos knew what the military world could offer and joined the Air Force in 2010 because she needed a change.
“I was in a job that didn’t have growth and I just finalized my first divorce,” she said. “The military was an option for me to start a stable career with benefits. It also gave me the opportunity to travel away from St. Mary’s County and experience new things.”
But not everyone joins right away. Senior Airman Heather Julian joined the DC Air National Guard in 2017. “I was at Tyndall Air Force Base watching men and women in uniform walk by me and had a wishful longing to walk alongside them in service,” she said.
At the time, service seemed a dream-length away because of her young children and pursuit to finish school. “It took me 12 years to finally take the oath, but I did it,” Heather said. “For me, basic military training was likely different than what it was for 18-year-old women. I was already a mother, had a career and had been around the military for 12 years as a spouse. I knew that it was just a step to take to get back to my daughters, family, and friends. It was physical and demanding but incredibly rewarding to finish.”
Serving in the military is different than a “normal” job – it quite literally controls your movements. And this can make for some difficulties when it comes to marriage, dating, and children.
“It can be a challenge trying to juggle a marriage, kids, and household with deployment or temporary duty schedules,” Christina said. “It is especially difficult being away from family and not having the support to help out when needed.”
Through this experience, she insists that communication is key. “The demand of the military can be very stressful for couples. Ensuring that you keep those lines of communication open and honest is extremely important for a successful relationship. Managing priorities is another very important aspect for a military couple, and understanding. Understanding that things can change and that we need to adapt. Many things are outside of our control. Sometimes you just need to go with the flow.”
While becoming flexible has its perks, children don’t often adjust as easily. “Having kids while in the military is both a challenge and a blessing,” Heather said.
“The challenge comes when I am activated and have to leave for training purposes or deployments. The blessing is that I am raising strong girls who are resilient and able to adjust. They understand that my service and sacrifice of time with them is bigger than just us,” she described. “My best advice for military couples is to adapt – to your surroundings, to your new friends and to the ever-changing circumstances that are sure to come. Seek the support of your friends and family in good times and bad.”
Jaclyn found dating others in the military is helpful because they better understand the lifestyle, but it also means their schedule might not align with yours.
“I got married in July 2015 and then left for six months in 2016 after I joined the Air National Guard while attending HVAC technical school. The following year, my then-wife left for training (1-2 months) and deployed for six months,” Jaclyn explained.
“Essentially, over the course of the first two years of our marriage, we were separated more than half of the time. This may be an extreme example, but serving sometimes takes you away from those you love, and it can be hard to cope. Technology allows for video calls to keep in contact, but that lack of touch and physical presence can be difficult,” she said.
For Jewel, her family acts as her motivation to continue. “I have three sons and if it wasn’t for my children, I probably would have gotten out. They are my main reasons to finish my 20 years, I want to show them that their mom is capable of ‘finishing the job’,” she said.
Many individuals join the military for the opportunity to travel – and protect – the world. Christina reflected on her favorite assignment – at the U.S. Consulate in Melbourne, Australia. “I loved working with the Australians and got to explore all around Melbourne!”
Her best memory, however, was volunteering to help post packages at an Air Post Office in Aviano, Italy over the holidays. “We worked around the clock to ensure the military families received all their gifts for Christmas.”
Jaclyn also had the opportunity to go abroad. “My favorite assignment was when I deployed to Incirlik, Turkey in 2011 for six months. This was before the Turkish coup attempt. It was the first time I traveled overseas as an adult and we were allowed to travel off base and enjoy the local attractions.”
Heather’s favorite memories hit closer to home, helping our regional community. “My favorite tasks would have to be while serving in this unit. I have been able to assist incoming members of the military as well as Marion Center Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps members. It is so rewarding to work with our future members of the military and community,” she said.
“The cool thing about being in the Air National Guard here is Southern Maryland is that the people who join tend to stay and work here so we are truly investing in our community,” Heather said. “My favorite memories thus far have been assisting the community during domestic operations. Whether it was responding to the attack of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, or assisting with peaceful protests in Washington D.C., aiding members of the community and restoring peace is the ultimate satisfaction.”
Being a Woman
As women, it’s important to feel supported in a male-dominated field. “I was so fortunate to be surrounded by many strong successful women during my career, many of which took me under their wing to mentor and develop,” Christina said.
“I believe the military has come a long way in accepting women. I always felt equal to my male counterparts. Never once in my military career did I feel disrespected or treated unfairly. I can do anything I set my mind to,” she continued. “I love to serve, and my passion is helping people. I was privileged in my career to be able to build on these qualities.”
Heather is the first woman in her family to serve. “It’s an honor I take seriously and hope that someday my daughters, nieces and nephews may consider as well.”
“I truly feel like the tides have changed and women are respected now more than ever. I have never felt like my male counterparts have had a better shot at something over me. It is simply earned rank and respect based on performance,” she said. “Although that’s not always the case for all women, this is when your voice matters. Don’t ever forget your voice.”
Jaclyn too found support while stateside, but sometimes traveling overseas to non- Western locations proved interesting.
“The only time I felt like being a woman in the military was a challenge was when I was deployed to Afghanistan,” she said. “I did a few missions with my team off base in Bagram and the locals have a different viewpoint about women. The men on my team were very protective, as we women were with them. Spending that much time together, and being put in the situations we were put in, we all created a lasting connection. Like I said, military members tend to form an extended family bond.”
Through it all, “I’ve learned that I’m pretty resilient,” Jaclyn said, who separated from her post this past September. “I think moving into the civilian world I’m better prepared [having been in the military] to try something new. I had no prior experiences in either military jobs, yet I think I excelled in each while I was serving.”
Mentors and Connections
Oftentimes, military members make friends to last a lifetime.
“One of my biggest support systems for the past several years has been Retired Chief Master Sergeant Leonard Jordan, a fellow Security Forces member. He has been a wealth of knowledge and it was an honor to serve alongside him.”
“I am lucky to have served alongside some of the most influential leaders this military has seen,” Heather said.
Christina also remembers the Commander of her first squadron fondly. “He was one of the first B-52 pilots shot down in Vietnam. He was held as a prisoner at war at the Hanoi Hilton from Dec. 19, 1972, to March 29, 1973. He was an amazing mentor and leader. He took the time to show me what I needed to know. He even helped me negotiate when buying my first car. I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to serve under him.”
Heather is thankful for the many people who have remained by her side over the years. “I have friends all over the world, but I am lucky enough to have some of the closest right here in Southern Maryland, from military spouses to women I serve with. The women in this story with me have all had an impact on me and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of women to stand next to.”
Jaclyn feels similarly – mentioning her good friend Laine, who has always been there for her. “We went through basic training and security forces technical school together. I think we’ve been each other’s one constant best military friend over the years. We’ve shared many good and bad experiences and have been able to continuously support each other through our lives.”
Understanding Civilian Life
When it’s all said and done, the next step after leaving the military is adjusting to civilian life, which can be a new challenge all its own.
“The military mindset and lifestyle will stay with some people,” Jaclyn said. “I still have the military mindset; it was a part of my life for 11 and a half years, about a third of my life. So, when I was getting out of active duty, I attended a Transition Assistance Program course, which provides great resources for all service members.”
Jaclyn said the course focuses on a capstone and three main areas: continuing education, getting back into the civilian workforce, or entrepreneurship/starting a business. “Some other great resources I’ve used are VA.gov and MilitaryOneSource.mil.”
With Veteran’s Day in November, Heather wants civilians to take the time to ask veterans questions, if they have them. “Pick up the phone or send us a message and ask questions if you want some information. Understand that not everyone’s experience is the same and some veterans require more empathy and understanding than others,” she said.
Jaclyn added on “Yes, while those who serve in the military choose to serve, they sometimes don’t get to choose what they are specifically doing or where they must go. We serve our country and follow lawful orders from the leaders appointed over us. We have the same rights as any other person, but we can’t simply say things like, ‘No, I’m not going to work today’,” she said. “It can be hard, and we appreciate empathy.”
However, if there is one thing military members wish civilians understood better, it’s that, “we are just like you,” Jewel said. “We have a family, we have friends, we have a home, but every three years we must relocate, so please be kind.”