In March 1976, retired Master Sergeant Susan Johnston was one of only a few women in the Missouri Air National Guard at Rosecrans.
At the time, she was a part-time guardsman and full-time employee at American Electric. The Colorado native remembers the intrigue of hearing her coworkers talk of their weekend drills and two-week training sessions.
“Maj. Bill Bolt, the way he would talk (about the guard), it would sound so interesting,” Johnston said. “I asked him one day, for me to even start out at an entry-level pay, the net was around $50 a weekend, which was decent pay back then.”
She had just received a 25 cents an hour raise. She liked her job, but the pay was meager. So, she went out to the base on a drill weekend.
“I said, ‘I’m just going to out there and talk to a recruiter,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Great, this is what I’m going to do.’ I never looked back. We call (the guard) the best-kept secret in St. Joseph because it’s such a wonderful place over there.”
Initially, Johnston worked a part-time administration job. There wasn’t an abundance of opportunities for women at the time.
The 139th Airlift Wing at Rosecrans was one of the first federally recognized bases. A lot of women came in and out of the base but were relegated to nursing or secretarial positions.
“There just wasn’t anything there for women,” Johnston said. “When I got there, I had friends that had gotten in years before but didn’t stay. Maybe three or four (women) on base at the time, gradually got to have more.”
However, Johnston felt empowered by the fact she earned the same pay as her male counterparts.
“Everybody at that rank got paid the same,” she said.
Back in the 1970s, that wasn’t the standard in the civilian world.
In 1982, Johnston would get an opportunity that would change her career. She became a recruiter for the guard, moving to full-time status with the United States Air Force.
“I loved recruiting,” Johnston said.
She got to work alongside Bob Ross and her own recruiter from six years before, David Bridenstine.
“We just worked so well together,” Johnston said. “We had the best, by far ever, recruiting office. And we did very well. We weren’t competitive with each other like recruiters tend to be. Our objective was to keep the base manned and for them to stay there.”
Johnston was a recruiter until 1996. However, each career has a max of rank, and she wasn’t ready to retire.
So she landed a position in traffic management, which moves people and equipment where needed.
“It’s a very big job to describe … when you’re dealing with how to get people from point A to point B,” Johnston said. “It takes a lot of coordinating to move a group of people. People don’t realize how critical the Air National Guard is. We’ve had people all over the world.”
Johnston eventually made rank. She said she was working a lot, getting a little older. Then 9/11 happened. She ended up retiring a year later in September 2002.
Johnston has a true fondness for her brothers and sisters at Rosecrans.
“I’ve met some of the greatest people in the Air Guard,” she said. “You just can’t beat them as a whole.”
As a recruiter, she would tell young people that she would always be there for them. Enlisted recruiters would often be moved on to other duties while a recruit would be attending basic training. But not Johnston.
“You can always come back to my office and get mad at me,” she would tell them. “We made a point of staying up with all the young recruits. We answered questions and fixed problems. We like the people we got in and wanted them to succeed.”
Johnston was happy to see more women join the guard. It enriches the unit, she said.
“It was fun to see girls that wanted to do something,” she said. “Wanted to further themselves, want to get in and do something that made them feel good.”
In retirement, she substitute taught for a year. Johnston and her husband, Roger, have five children, one of whom is a teacher.
She decided one year was enough of teaching. So, she found a new challenge working at Hy-Vee for three years. She was in her 50s when she applied and was surrounded by teenagers. But she embraced the position and enjoyed it.
Then despite the stress and bad hours, Johnston went to work for the TSA for a few years.
“I enjoyed those jobs,” she said. “But then it was time to actually retire.”
Now she travels with her husband and enjoys their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.