After 17 years in the Air Force, Lt. Col. Sheena Puleali’i says her current role at the University of Southern Mississippi is the highlight of her career, which is coming full circle as it nears its end.
Thirty-nine-year-old Puleali’i started June 30 as director of aerospace studies at the university, where she serves as commander of Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 432.
“It was very competitive to get this specific position, and I am just incredibly happy that I was blessed to get it,” she said.
Puleali’i is responsible for recruiting, educating and developing officer candidates through college campus programs based on Air Force requirements, and commissioning those who successfully meet all educational and program parameters.
She also teaches an aerospace studies class for junior and senior cadets, focusing on the history of the Air Force, leadership development, and what life is like once the cadets start active duty as second lieutenants, she said.
Her goal is to share with cadets the knowledge she’s gained over the years and prepare them for what lies ahead, she added. She also credited the work of her team: Melanie Sowell, Daniel Harrison, Maj. André Taylor and Tech. Sgt. Kristie Stefinsky.
A distinguished Air Force career
Puleali’i comes from a military family: her mother, biological father, stepfather and great-grandfather served in the Army, and her grandfather served in the Marine Corps. Her biological parents met in the early 1980s while serving in Germany. Her father is Samoan; her mother, who is Italian and Irish, was a flight medic and earned a Soldier’s Medal.
Because of the uncertainty of their schedules, when she was 6 months old Puleali’i went to live with her grandmother in California, where she had extended family.
Her parents eventually split and left the service. At age 7, Puleali’i moved to Hawaii to live with her mother and stepfather, a medevac pilot who served in the Army for 30 years.
“He actually read me the oath of office at my commissioning ceremony, and continued to read it with every promotion thereafter,” she said.
Her stepfather’s career later took the family to Texas, Missouri, New York and Alabama.
“I had a happy childhood and truly enjoyed moving every few years,” she said.
Puleali’i attended Saint Louis University (SLU), a choice that was “kind of a fluke,” she said. Her stepfather encouraged her to fill out an ROTC scholarship application, but then she was accepted at Florida State University and began preparing to go there.
Then, she received a letter from SLU congratulating her on receiving the scholarship, and saying the university would cover her room and board.
“I remember my stepdad saying, ‘Well, I hope you like St. Louis,’” she said. “We laughed, and the rest is history.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies, which she said she chose simply
because it sounded interesting. Upon graduation in 2005, she was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC. In 2012, she earned a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from American Military University.
Puleali’i has served in a variety of positions throughout her career, including: flight commander and mission operations commander with the 11th Intelligence Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida; J2 collection manager with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Arabian Peninsula; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations team chief with the 607th Air and Space Operations Center at Osan Air Base, South Korea.
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In 2015, she assumed the duties of detachment commander in one of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s most selectively manned units. She also served at the Pentagon as the executive officer to the assistant deputy chief of staff, intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance, and as a national security fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. Prior to her current position, she served as deputy chief for Air Combat Command’s intelligence systems and capabilities division.
Puleali’i lives with her wife, their 13-year-old daughter and two “fur babies.” In her personal time, she stays active with yoga, running and indoor cycling, but also loves the beach and binge-watching TV, she said.
An approachable leader
AFROTC cadets at the University of Southern Mississippi raved about Puleali’i’s style of leadership.
“She is personable, relatable, compassionate, but yet very direct,” said Cadet Noel Parrett, a senior. “I think that when it comes to cadet development, she inspires the level of leadership that we can all be like. She does a really good job of embodying what a leader is.”
Sophomore Cadet Jessica Crenshaw said Puleali’i is very involved with the program.
“She’s really excited to see the program grow, and it makes me really excited to be here,” Crenshaw said.
Cadet Julia Anderson, who plans to become a nurse in the Air Force, said Puleali’i and her team have an open-door policy that leads to a welcoming environment.
“She’s amazing,” Anderson said. “I’ve loved having her — and it hasn’t even been a semester.”
The process of helping cadets develop leadership skills starts as freshmen and sophomores, when they begin to learn about the Air Force, the Space Force and their mission, Puleali’i said.
They attend leadership lab, which is run by juniors and seniors, and features group projects that prompt them to figure out how to solve problems and work as a team.
The experience is also a learning ground for the upperclassmen, who develop their own leadership skills running the lab, she said.
“Leadership is about communication, and you must have the ability to adapt, as well as be approachable,” she said.
Puleali’i described her 17 years since her commission as “a roller-coaster fantastic ride.”
There have been exhilarating times, she said, as well as times when she didn’t like her assignments and considered leaving the military.
She’s thankful that she followed her parents’ advice to stick it out and see if things would turn out well, she said.
“I am really very blessed that they told me to do that,” she said, “because as it turns out, nothing is permanent.”
Looking back, much of the reason she didn’t enjoy some of the work was tied to the quality of her leaders, she said.
“I think I learned most from the leaders I did not want to be like,” she said.
Some people are naturally more apt at leadership, but anyone can be given the tools to achieve that, Puleali’i said.
“Whether or not they use those tools, and whether or not they want to be a leader, that determines whether or not they can be an effective leader,” she said. “The desire needs to be there.”Read comments