Two students fought for freedom overseas: Dougherty, Air Force pilot, flew missions over Afghanistan

Kimberly Dougherty is making a career change.

For 22 years, she was one of the few women navigators in the United States Air Force, and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. This fall, however, she became a student.

She began taking graduate classes at the College in the hopes of one day teaching English.

“It’s a little bit of a job change,” Dougherty said.

Originally from Terryville, Conn., Dougherty graduated in 1980 with a B.A. in English from Concordia College in New York. She entered the job market during a recession much like the one that graduates face today, so she found the Air Force instead.

“Jobs were hard to come by,” Dougherty said. “I had a brother in the Air Force. I figured I could do some writing for them. Then the recruiter asked me if I wanted to fly.”

Dougherty passed the qualifying test and entered training to become a navigator. She attended officer training school, navigational training, Air Force survival school, specific training for her plane and some training at the local base.

She was the premier female navigator at the first base she was deployed to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

“It’s tough being first,” Dougherty said. “Whenever I was the first in a field, it felt like the future of all women in that career field was on my shoulders. If I messed up, I didn’t want people to say ‘See, if she can’t do it, no woman can.'”

However, she was not always the first. In Sacramento, Calif., where she was often based, others preceded her. It took some of the pressure off, she said, to know that if she failed, they could look to the others’ successes.

Dougherty attributes much of her to success to the support she received from her mother. Her mother had her sights set on joining the military during World War II, Dougherty said, but her mother would not let her. So when Dougherty told her she was going to be a navigator in the Air Force, her mother was enthusiastic.

Dougherty has been deployed to the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia. Most recently, she flew seven combat missions in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. She was based out of Oman on the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

Her primary mission was to navigate the KC-135, a refueling tanker that refills planes in mid- air. As a navigator, Dougherty was responsible for directing the rendezvous with the aircraft that needed refueling. This was a tricky job, she said, as the maneuver was done at 500 mph.

Navigating on a flight, which lasted usually seven or eight hours, was Dougherty’s secondary job. Her primary job in Oman was to plan tanker operations. Usually she worked 12-hour shifts on the ground planning future missions.

Living conditions in her tent city in the middle of the desert would make any college student thankful for their room, even Centennial.

“It was all sand, no green here,” she said. The tent she stayed in housed seven women at a time. Each person had a cot, a metal locker and a metal chair.

“We made shelves out of boxes,” Dougherty said. “It was kind of like my dorm room at college.”

Think the walk to the community bathroom is long? The bathrooms in the tent city were 10 minutes from Dougherty’s tent.

“If you thought you had to go to the bathroom, you’d better start walking right then,” she said, “because by the time you got there, you’d really have to go.”

Dougherty retired shortly before the War in Iraq. She characterizes her career as a “great experience.” She said that she was able to work with a lot of great people in her years in the military. Unfortunately, two of these great people were friends who lost their lives.

Overall, Dougherty is thankful that she was able to travel and fulfill her patriotic duty. “I got to serve my country,” she said, “which I think is important.”

To this day, Dougherty has no regrets. “I enjoyed it,” she said. “I would do it again.”