Kay Schwartz was born to a mustang Father who spent 28 years in the United States Navy before retiring when she was 9 years old.
It was a difficult life while he served and just as difficult of a life afterwards.
By the time Kay got into high school, she already knew that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. During a conversation they had together her senior year, she told him that she wanted to serve her country like he had.
Proud of her decision, he proposed to pay for her college if she went officer. An easy decision for Kay to own.
The next choice for her was deciding which branch she’d call her own.
Because her father had done 28 years in the Navy, Kay felt it was only wise to follow his lead and become a sailor herself.
He was having none of it.
Military life back in 1982 was still not a great place for women who wanted to serve.
They weren’t allowed in combat units because they weren’t allowed in combat at all. They weren’t allowed to fly specific aircraft and they were most certainly not allowed out at sea. “It was a different world,” she says.
He convinced her that the Air Force was the best home for her,
“As a young lady, you’ll be able to have a family, you’ll be able to get promoted, there’s a lot more opportunity for you. This is the place you need to be.”
She agreed and during her freshman year of college, joined the AFROTC. Looking back now, she realizes how blessed she was to have mentors like him in her life.
She attributes that advice as the best direction he could have given her at the time.
She got married to a Navy Lieutenant her junior year of college and like most young couples back then, immediately started a family.
In AFROTC, they didn’t know what to do with a pregnant cadet.
In fleet Air Force, they didn’t know what to do with a young female officer who had a baby.
By the time she commissioned into the Air Force she already had a one year old son.
“It was just a different time. It was a completely different time.”
Back then, officer’s wives were expected to contribute to the careers of their officer husbands. In fact, a blue ribbon panel had just come out in 1988 which established that the volunteer work of officer wives would no longer be weighed into their husband’s fitness reports.
“To have a woman who was coming in with a kid, who’s not doing tea parties and officer’s wife club things but who loved the women and supported them was a very interesting thing.”
In December of 1986, her husband’s command learned of her commission, they convinced Kay to come on board six months early.
She attributes this decision as a huge mistake.
“I knew who the ranks were, I knew how to salute, but the whole — what my job was and how to do it, that’s what I wasn’t ready for.”
On top of that, her first post was “in a kind of man’s world,” being an aircraft maintenance squadron where female airmen and especially officers were scant.
She was lucky to have a couple female officers who had gone through technical training with her husband at the time to help guide her along.
It was her first view of women supporting one another, although it didn’t last long.
In the beginning of her career, male counterparts would often harass her with lude behavior, leaving her to contemplate reporting them.
She’d often have to ask herself, “how miserable do I want to be for doing the right thing and what would happen if I do?”
She continues, “It’s a balance. I could do this, make the right decision and sleep at night or not.” But she affords the success she was able to have with her dad being there to help her strike that balance.
Ever Monday morning her father would call to check up on her.
She attributes getting through those difficult times of shitty bosses and peer harrassment to him,
“He was a great mentor for me to be able to talk through how to handle things.” Again, being a woman in the Military in the mid-1980s was a difficult life at best.
“It was a tough first job,” she says.
She was brought into the position before she even had a chance to go to a technical school which meant she was leading her troops blind.
Her initial Squadron Commander got fired and when they brought on a new CO, he took her into his office and explained how they had failed her;
“Listen, you’re doing the best you can, and we failed you. We didn’t get you the training, we didn’t get you the leadership, we failed you. So we’re going to put you into a place where you’ll be successful and we’re going to help you get to where you need to be and continue to be successful in your career.”
Kay retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2007.
She began to realize that the officer she was in the Air Force might not be the person she was as a civilian.
She began pulling the layers back and seeing that she needed to become a different kind of leader. She was no longer taking people into battle. She was no longer having to worry about the physical safety of those under her charge.
She had to find different ways to address things, “Life is a little different in the military community than the civilian community.”
She continues, “after 12 years, I’ve learned to open up and find pieces of myself that I really like and that I’m happy with. What’s really important to me is that courage and vulnerability. I had to accept that opening up to people is what really resonates with them. When you get to know people that work for you, around you, or you work with — it makes life in the day so much better.”
She knows she isn’t perfect and that she’ll make mistakes.
But that’s what being human is all about and that’s the great part of life.
“The further you get from [leaving] the Military, the more you take all those amazing experiences and those amazing leadership [qualities] and you can conform to a society that’s yours where you can be your authentic self.”
Kay’s transformation solidified when she found her new home at USAA. She is currently the Regional Director of Human Resources of Tampa Bay where she continues to serve those who’ve served.
Kay also support’s the University of South Florida’s Department of Veteran Success while teaching one HR course a semester there.
She is the co-chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber on Military Council and simply gets out as much as possible to support Veteran activities and events.
But her heart is in sharing her story, especially to other female Veterans, “It goes back to dad and his life of service.”
She continues, “The reason I wanted to join the Military was to serve. I missed the camaraderie and service when I initially got out of the Military. At USAA, I don’t serve in the Military anymore but I do help serve those who do, that’s important. Helping others grow and develop and become successful — I just feel like it’s my community and I need to serve and give back in that way and that’s the way I choose to do it.”
Adam T. Cummings
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