386 AEW firefighters extinguish assumptions, overcome challenges

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Eric M. Sharman
  • 386 Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The term Airman is non-specific by design. It encompasses all genders, all ranks and all careers. In this way, the term Airman is similar to the term firefighter. At the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing there are four female firefighters who are doing the same physically demanding work as their male counterparts, and exemplify what makes the Air Force so progressive.


“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Senior Airman Christa Dennis, a 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter deployed from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga. “When I talked to my recruiter I wanted to do something physical, and I wanted to help people.

Dennis didn’t have the typical experience of getting her Air Force specialty assigned and going right along to technical training. Dennis had the experience of having an Air Force fire chief interview her before she joined to show her exactly what she was getting into as a firefighter.

“They didn’t just let me have a job. I was probably the only person who was interviewed because they hadn’t had a female in that unit for years,” said Dennis. “They wanted to feel me out for their benefit and mine. They wanted to tell me the worst of the worst and see how I would handle it.”

After being told what she’d experience professionally and personally as a female in a male-dominated career field, Dennis wasn’t discouraged. She knew that she’d have a higher profile as a female firefighter, and was determined to rise to the occasion and represent herself outside of the stigmas that are sometimes attached to females in male-populated careers.

“The fire department is about playing to your strengths. I can be a woman, and still do this job,” said Dennis. “I can’t afford to do anything halfway.”


Succeeding as a female firefighter brings challenges based on the assumption that men are physically stronger than women, according to Staff Sgt. Jessica Mendoza, who’s also a 386th ECES firefighter deployed from Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla. Not one to let assumptions define her, Mendoza has found an effective way show her peers that her 5-foot-3-inch, 132-pound frame isn’t going to diminish her performance as a firefighter.

“I find the heaviest guy in the department and pick him up,” said Mendoza. “I have him be my training partner, so that everyone who is lighter than him feels comfortable that I can pick them up, drag them, and rescue them as well as every guy in the department.”

That effort, also demonstrated by Senior Airman Ayanna Gaskin, 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, also deployed from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, helps to remove the stigma of working as a woman in a male-dominated field.

“The actions and effort that you put in will dictate any assumptions that people make,” said Gaskin. “As long as you do a good job, the playing field is even.”

This is part one in a two-part feature series on 386th Air Expeditionary Wing female firefighters.