Former AFRC Command Chief Master Sgt. Ericka Kelly may have retired from wearing the uniform, but not from the military’s ideals.
After over 30 years in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve, and representing the highest enlisted executive level of leadership, Kelly officially hung her dress blues earlier this year. Long before the transition, though, she was preparing for her next chapter in life to speak, coach and teach leadership.
Now certified under the John Maxwell Team, Kelly has a demanding schedule of speaking events across the U.S. ranging from 4,000-head adult audiences to a handful of troubled high school students, all looking for a sense of purpose.
“This has given me a great venue for staying connected to the military, staying connected to veterans, staying connected to women, to children, and just talk about self-growth, self-value and leadership as a whole,” she said.
The message Kelly is working to spread is highly personal, too. Before she was in the executive ranks of the military, she was a 12-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who was not only told, but expected by her own family, to do nothing more than blue collar work.
“I came to this country with a horrible conditioning of being poor, of not having electricity, no water, dirt floors, food whenever; I did not eat every day,” Kelly said. “I got to this country and then I had to, I don’t want to say endure, but go through the language barrier. The ‘you look different; you’re too small; your place, Ericka, is to be a maid; your place is to be a field worker; why are you trying to be something else?’”
Kelly did not let the immigrant stereotype stop her from enlisting in the Air Force in 1987, four years before Congress allowed women to fly in combat and 26 years before it lifted the ban on women in combat rules altogether. Not surprisingly, a new set of challenges would emerge.
“As a young civilian, as a young woman looking at the military as something that I wanted to do in my life, looking at the military as a place where I could get a chance, get an opportunity to prove myself and have a career,” Kelly said, “one of my choices, not knowing, was to be a PJ. Very quickly the recruiter said, ‘That job is not for females.’ They did not even give me a chance to try out or see if I could physically do the job.”
Regardless, she enlisted and began her military career. When the draft ended in 1973, women represented only 2% of the enlisted forces. However, in the “2016 Population Representation in the Military Services” report by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, those numbers increased to 16%. Kelly witnessed much of the change first-hand.
“When all jobs opened up for females it was, for me, more of an internal smile because what I felt was that those layers of a challenge for us … just banging on this invisible wall and we couldn’t get in until someone heard us and they opened the door,” she said.
While Kelly celebrated the achievements of Capt. Kristen Griest, Maj. Lisa Jaster and 1stLt. Shaye Have who become the first female soldiers to graduate from Ranger school in 2015, she also availed from the changes as she deployed twice under Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, collected multiple awards and decorations, and climbed the military ranks.
She attributes her own successes to the leadership she was exposed to throughout her career, despite gender roles.
“My early years in the Air Force still are full of gratitude because I found pretty solid, amazing people that fed me goodness,” Kelly said. “I think that if my first assignment in the military would have been with poor supervisors and poor leadership, those poor supervisors would have reinforced the negative voice that I had in my head and I would have quit.”
Quit, she did not. Former lieutenants would encourage her to do better and would publicly celebrate any achievements she attained, which ultimately helped her believe in herself.
“That’s what I’m talking about ‘being fed goodness.’ Because no one in my whole life had paid attention to me in that way, right? I was just an extra mouth to feed. I was just someone that was too awkward because of whatever reason, and so I spent my whole life isolated on purpose. Isolated because I didn’t fit in, and for the first time in my life the Air Force was giving me a person,” Kelly said.
When people think about retirement, many might dream about endless days of gardening or spoiling grandchildren, but not for Kelly, who does not believe her life’s purpose is over. She remains eager to meet people and share her rags to riches story.
“Retirement is amazing not because it’s retirement and poof, I’m out of the military,” Kelly said. “No, no, I love the military, right? But the military is… I wear the uniform — the uniform is inside me. So I’m retired from a title, and I’m retired from a position, but I will never be retired from being an airman.”Read comments