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One team, one fight: A female pilot's role in the 137ARW mission change

Air Force Capt. Sharla Hilton continues the tradition of women aviators at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma City, as the 137th Air Refueling Wing celebrates Women’s History Month.

Air Force Capt. Sharla Hilton continues the tradition of women aviators at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma City, as the 137th Air Refueling Wing celebrates Women’s History Month. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Andrew M. LaMoreaux/Released)

WILL ROGERS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Okla. -- A little boy stares attentively as he stands next to his father and watches aircraft landing on the flight line. The crew from the just-landed aircraft strides toward the pair, loosening their equipment and removing their helmets. One of the helmets reveals a tangle of wavy blond hair pulled back into a ponytail.

"Dad, that girl flew a plane!"

Today, "that girl" is Capt. Sharla Hilton, a special operations pilot helping to navigate the 137th Air Refueling Wing at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City through its change to a special operations mission set.

As the first to join the military in her immediate family, Hilton knows a little about breaking barriers, but not purposely.

"I just wanted to be a pilot but not for an airline. So I joined the Air Force," she said. "None of us knew what the military was going to be like."

Despite having influential military mentors, Hilton said her parents are the greatest inspiration for her military career.

"They've always been proud of us - of me and my sisters - and the country we live in," she explained. "So they always instilled that pride in us."

For Hilton, serving her country as a woman is more than just pride - it just made sense.

"Part of living in our country is our volunteer military and look at how diverse our country is," she said. "Why would it make sense for our military to be any different? I think we (women) should take just as much responsibility that men do in protecting the values and freedoms of our country."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up 50.8 percent of the nation's population. Currently women make up 19 percent of the Air Force, the highest of any service.

Hilton started her military career in 2006 and was picked up by the Air Force Special Operations Command as a pilot. She moved here in October 2009 as the Wing began its transition into AFSOC and has gotten used to looking around and seeing a large ratio of men to women.

"Sometimes having a female in the group gives you a different dynamic - sometimes it's helpful, sometimes it's not," she said. "But sometimes a group of men isn't the best thing either. There are differences. There's no debating that one. But I think in the right setting with the right people, female and male alike you can have a successful team."

The Air Force began recruiting women into previously closed-to-women career fields at the beginning of this year and despite the still relatively low numbers of females in the military, Hilton recognizes the role that the even fewer military women in the past have had on her career.

"It's not as big of an issue today, mainly because people you work with today are used to working beside women and women are used to working alongside men," she said. "I'm extremely proud of the women before me who have had to a fight a lot harder than I've had to fight to be where I am today."

For future generations, male or female, Hilton recommends the advice her parents gave her, plus some she learned from experience.

"Do and be whatever you want. Work hard, and you don't have anyone to blame but yourself, if you don't get what you want. You want equal treatment and you want equal standards, so you can't really think of yourself as any different. We're just all a part of a big team and we work together to get to our goal."

As she continues her career with the soon-to-be 137th Special Operations Wing, the picture of the amazed little boy at the fence of the flight line sticks with Hilton.

"The more little kids see that gender and race and all these different diversities don't matter, the more we can all understand that everybody brings something to the table," she said. "Overall, it helps us to complete the goal as that big team."