By Renee Corwine
Photography by Matt Odom
Col. Lindsay Droz made history on June 29 when she took command of the 78th Air Base Wing at Robins Air Force Base. Her taking command of the Wing marks the first time in the base’s 80-year history that four of its top commanders are female.
It’s a remarkable step, considering that of the 326,855 active duty members of the Air Force nationwide, only 21.3 percent are women.
Col. Droz, who’s served since 1998, now commands more than 2,700 personnel and supports 54 mission partners including the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex and Team JSTARS. She’s responsible for the safety, security, morale and welfare of more than 23,000 Airmen and civilians assigned to Robins, and 28,000 local dependents and retirees.
Leading Robins with Col. Droz is Brig. Gen. Jennifer Hammerstedt, the Commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex. As commander, she oversees more than 7,200 primarily civilian personnel. She’s been in this role since July 2020, and first began her career in the Air Force in 1996.
Col. Amy Holbeck is the commander of the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins. She’s also the first female wing commander in the history of the Georgia Air National Guard. She began her Air Force career in 1997 in avionics maintenance and has been at Robins since 2001.
Col. Michelle Carns is commander of the 461st Air Control Wing at Robins. She was commissioned in 1997 and was assigned to both U.S. and NATO flying on the Airborne Warning and Control System, as well as a previous assignment with JSTARS. She’s been at Robins since 2019 and is the first female wing commander in the history of the 461 ACW.
In her speech at the Change of Command ceremony in June, Col. Droz called the historic moment “awe inspiring,” and quickly turned the spotlight on the work of Robins as a whole.
“Our goal is simple: to be the best version of ourselves every day. Our job is hard, but our Airmen, civilians, contractors and team Robins deserve the very best. … It’s pretty awe-inspiring, but this is about team Robins. This isn’t about me; it’s about the team.”
That sense of selfless striving for the good of the whole was a predominant theme in the conversation Macon Magazine had with the four commanders. In its own historic feat of scheduling, we sat down with all four women to talk about leading effectively, being a woman in a position of power, drawing more young people into service and supporting Robins from a community standpoint.
What follows is an abbreviated version of the interview. Read a more complete interview at maconmagazine.com.
Macon Magazine: What makes a good leader?
Gen. Hammerstedt: I think a good leader really knows themselves. I always tell my young officers, ‘Know yourself, be yourself and love your Airmen.’ You have to know your strengths and weaknesses and where your blind spots are so that you can surround yourself with people who think differently than you and so that you can lead the unit more effectively. For me, personally, I’m a people person. So that’s the leadership lens by which I look at the world, and even though what I do is very industrial, it doesn’t happen without people. For me, a good leader cares for the people. Everything starts with our people.
Col. Carns: A good leader is someone who is trying to be their personal best. I think if you look at history, the best leaders are people who have been the most humble and the most credible, who are really devoted to their cause and are doing it for the right reasons. There’s an adage in commander’s training where you say, ‘You don’t get to have a bad day. You have to be your best every single day and try to be there for the people and for the mission.’ But I think it’s all about us striving to embody the best of the human values that you can achieve: courage, duty, honor, all of those things. It goes back to asking yourself: ‘Am I making every decision in accordance with those values? Am I living my personal and professional life in accordance with those values?’ If I can answer yes at the end of every day, then I think I can achieve what would be considered good leadership.
Col. Droz: I think being willing to listen is key. The way I always think about it is that I’m training my replacement. It is not about me, it’s about the team. I need to provide the leadership, but I need to help develop, train, inspire and motivate the workforce to achieve their personal best. By being my personal best, I help inspire that.
Col. Holbeck: I think a leader unifies the group, team or organization that they’re a leader of, and they unify it for a greater purpose. A good leader is one who’s real. By real, I mean transparent, not afraid to make mistakes, not afraid to fail, because we learn and grow by those failures and mistakes. There’s a phrase out there that folks would rather follow a leader who is always real versus one who’s always right. I think that’s true, too.
MM: Are there pitfalls to leadership?
Col. Holbeck: There is the responsibility or the burden that you do need to always be right, that folks think that you have all the answers. And the reality is, you don’t. And I think that’s part of being humble and transparent, and letting them know you don’t, but that you can find the answer or you can work together for a solution to a problem.
Col. Droz: Leaders can fall too far into, “I need to get everybody’s opinion,” or, “I need to be too decisive.” Leaders need to be able to balance that — listening and taking inputs to problems — and then being decisive when you need to be.
Col. Carns: You have to remember it’s not about you; it’s about the institution. The roles that we fill are not about us. They are about accomplishing our mission, taking care of people and ensuring that we are using resources wisely. This is not about me or any of us at this table. It’s about ensuring that we accomplish the mission and the tasks that we have been assigned.
MM: Do you find that women have to approach leadership differently than men do?
Gen. Hammerstedt: I think we’d all be lying if we said our gender did not impact the type of leader we are. I look at gender as another characteristic of who I am. It’s just like where we were raised, if we come from a large family, our background, if our parents were in the military or were not, if we grew up in a small town, all of that stuff. Being a female is just one of the dozen characteristics that make me who I am. Just like my male counterpart, his gender is just one part of who he is.
Col. Droz: I don’t think I’ve ever consciously said, ‘I’m going to be this kind of a leader because of my gender.’ I’m the leader I am because of all of those experiences that I’ve had throughout my life that have made me who I am. And I think that’s why I’m in the position that I’m in. That’s why the Air Force has invested in me to be a leader.
Col. Carns: It’s also important to remember that the way the Air Force prepares us is completely gender neutral. We are privileged to be in an organization that is a meritocracy. If you show the potential and the desire, and you’re making good judgment and good decisions along the way, that’s going to get recognized. I think that our system is designed so that commander training is commander training and flight commander training is flight commander training. You bring your own unique skills and experiences to that training, but the training is designed independent of that, so that the leader is prepared with the training that they’re given to then fulfill the role in their own unique way.
MM: What motivated you to join the Air Force?
Gen. Hammerstedt: I was the youngest of five kids and grew up in a really small town where very few people joined the military. It was a rural farming community in New Jersey. My decision was about opportunity. I had a friend that applied to the Naval Academy. I had no idea what military academies were, but I applied and didn’t get in and ended up going to a prep school and eventually got into the Air Force Academy. The reason people join the military and the reason people stay are often totally polar opposites. That’s clearly the case for me. I fell in love with the military — the tremendous young Americans you meet as a young adult, the camaraderie, the unit cohesion, the purpose, doing something larger than yourself.
Col. Carns: I grew up in the Air Force. I was born overseas and we moved and moved and moved about 20 or 25 times. I’ve lost count. My parents’ favorite story to tell is about when I was 12. We went to visit the Air Force Academy and I was like, ‘Well, this is one thing I know I’m not going to do.’ That’s their favorite story to tell about me whenever they get a chance. I also did not get in the first year that I applied to the Air Force Academy, which only strengthened my resolve. And I realized that through that experience, it was what I really wanted. So, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. When we enter the Air Force, we come for different reasons, and I ended up staying for a lot of other reasons as well.
Col. Droz: I had no active military background. My grandfathers both served in World War II and my grandma was a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ during World War II, but I didn’t find that out until much, much later in life. I wanted to be a pilot. Obviously, I’m not a pilot. I only applied to two schools: the Air Force Academy and the University of Houston because I wanted to play ball there. After I’d done all the flight screening and everything, I was medically disqualified from being a pilot and literally I had to pick a career field. I knew I wanted to do something with airplanes and so maintenance was the best option. I don’t think a lot of folks come into the military knowing what it really means to serve, unless you have a background in it. But once I got there, it was like this is absolutely a perfect fit. I like the structure, the sense of purpose and just doing something that is bigger than yourself.
Col. Holbeck: I’m the non-Academy person. I just grew up very patriotic and always wanted to serve. I went to college to play golf. After college I had no idea what came next, so I called the 800 number and went to the local recruiter — and the rest is history.
MM: With a career in the military, oftentimes you’re moved around and assigned to different places to serve in different roles. Did any of you ever have a choice about where you wanted to go, or did you make any career moves strategically?
Col. Droz: My approach has always been: I’m going to just do whatever they ask me to do and I’m going to do it absolutely the best that I can. And if you do that, opportunities come. I’ve had some assignments that I thought initially were an absolute backward step or not what I was expecting or not really what I wanted, but I’m also in kind of a unique situation. For my first 21 years, I was married to an active duty member — he just retired a couple years ago. Our goal was really to stay together and to continue to serve and so sometimes we had to take an assignment that wasn’t on our radar. But everything worked out!
Col. Holbeck: I can tell you though that I made a strategic life decision by joining the Georgia Air National Guard from active duty. My husband and I, our families are both two and a half hours away. That’s a strategic life decision, not necessarily career, but it did work out well.
Gen. Hammerstedt: I remember when I got my first assignment when I was in my last year at the Academy. It was to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and I cried because I wanted to go to Charleston. Naively, I really wanted to go to a base on the East Coast, and looking back, going to Davis-Monthan was the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned through that very first assignment there are opportunities at every assignment, and I am better to just let the Air Force decide where I should go next. It has worked for me ever since!
MM: Certainly, the historic nature of your appointment as commanders is not lost on you, right? How does it make you feel to be part of such a unique situation as Robins having four female commanders?
Gen. Hammerstedt: I think it was probably lost on all of us until people started asking about it.
Col. Droz: But I will say that after it was pointed out to us, I don’t think any of us really wanted to make a big deal out of the fact that it was four women. I think we’re all just who we are. We’re leaders in our own right and we all got to where we are completely independently. But I saw how my daughters reacted when they saw me standing up on the stage and taking the flag and it resonated with them why it is important. But I don’t think any of us were aware until it was pointed out to us.
Gen. Hammerstedt: Like Lindsay said, it is organic how this happened, so it validates what we say, which is that our Air Force puts leaders where they need them at the right time. I will say though that the cool thing is that these three leaders are amazing, and it is an honor to serve with each of them.
Col. Droz: Three of us go back 20 years. And Amy is just awesome! So, for me personally, that’s the part about this that’s kind of cool is that it’s fun to serve with great people. When I found out I was going to be Michelle’s neighbor, we hadn’t seen each other in 23 years, but we reconnected like it was yesterday. And it’s also fun to watch the male spouses as our counterparts to all that.
Macon Magazine: Do you outrank your husband?
Col. Droz: I did before he retired, and I love it! He’s my biggest fan — absolutely.
MM: Do you feel a responsibility to younger female Airmen, or even to your daughters, to be a role model of leadership?
Col. Droz: I still don’t look at it as being, ‘a woman leader.’ I just strive to be a leader and a person and somebody who they can look up to. I have two daughters and one son and I never consciously thought about it before, but I see how important it is. We talk about diversity in the military all the time and it is important for people to see leaders who represent the entire spectrum of our society. But I love the fact that working with these three wonderful people here is that my daughters do see people like them leading.
Col. Carns: I would say the responsibility I feel is probably what every commander feels every day. It’s just this enormous responsibility for the mission and the people. That’s what I wake up and feel every day. I have to do my best to get this right — for their sake and for the sake of the mission. That’s the responsibility I feel every day.
Gen. Hammerstedt: When I came into the Air Force, we did have female senior officers in my career field. For me, early on, I saw women leading in Aircraft Maintenance, so it did not seem unusual. There was never for me, personally, this sense of a roadblock or some type of ceiling that existed.
MM: Historically, men outnumber women in all areas of the armed forces. Do you think the tide is turning?
Col. Holbeck: My dad always taught me to do my best, work hard, have a good attitude and take advantage of every opportunity. I was never told I couldn’t do something because I was female. I was not aware until the first interviews started happening that I’m the first female Wing Commander in the Georgia Air National Guard — I didn’t realize the weight of it. I just want to be the best leader, the best person, I can be. But it’s inspiring how much it means to other people. So, there is a burden of responsibility, but again it’s to all of our people, not just the young females. We all want to be good role models and good leaders for both the males and the females.
Gen. Hammerstedt: Sitting with the four of us, I think it indicates how far we’ve come. I had the privilege of working for Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, who was in the first class of females at the Air Force Academy and our first female four-star general in the Air Force. Now, she has a story! It’s because of leaders like her that we’re brave enough to be here today. I know how scared I was when I stepped on the grounds of the Air Force Academy in 1992, which was 16 years after the first female did that into a totally male environment. We are fortunate to have had others go before us. And now, Gen. Lori Robinson has become the first female combatant commander. She’s paved the way for others. So that’s a big deal.
MM: What do you think it would take to draw more women into service?
Col. Droz: Probably the same thing would take to draw more Americans into service in general. There’s a very, very small percentage of our population that actually serves — whether it’s men or women. There’s an old saying, ‘You recruit Airmen, but you retain families.’ And that has a role in it. You have to take care of the Airmen and you have to take care of the families. You have to give them purpose and connectedness. We have to make service something that’s valued in our society, whether it’s men or women.
Gen. Hammerstedt: If you look at a standard graduating high school class, it’s a small percentage that is even eligible to serve in the United States military. I try to emphasize to our leaders that the young Airmen who come to us in their first assignment are very special and we need to thank them for saying yes to joining our Air Force. This same small percentage of young Americans could have gone to college or pursued other careers, yet they chose to serve in the Air Force!
I do think that women, just like men, have similar stressors. The military has a high ops tempo and it can be a strain on the other spouse — whether they are male or female. Spouse employment, deployments and separation, those are the three highest stressors, and the Air Force is doing a lot to help with that, but we’ve got to continue to get creative on ways that we can attract and retain people.
MM: Do you think any of the new hair regulations and uniform changes for women will make a difference in recruitment or retention?
Col. Carns: I was a commander for a training squadron and every time I would have new Airmen come in, I would ask them the same question: ‘What brought you in the military?’ Nearly 99 percent of the time it was the benefits. That’s what draws them in — the education, the benefits, the stability for the family, the paycheck. So, I think these regulation changes are helpful, that they add to the quality of life and things like that, but in my experience as a commander, new Airmen most appreciated the benefits and what that meant for their stability and supporting their family.
Gen. Hammerstedt: I think the changes to the hair standards are all about our senior leaders really listening. It’s our Air Force listening — whether it’s hair standards or expanding parental leave to male or gender-neutral partners. It’s about listening to our Airmen and asking, ‘What is keeping you from serving effectively or staying in?’ And then say, ‘Okay, we can fix that!’ For a lot of women, the hair concerns were a big deal. Okay, we can fix that! Whether that recruits people, I don’t know. But I do think those things help with retention because Airmen will want to serve in an Air Force with leaders who listen.
Col. Carns: And like the General said, it’s has a lot to do with our culture. If we have a culture of listening and a culture of looking for opportunities in ways that we can retain, if they came in for the benefits, maybe they stay because they find that the culture is something they want to be a part of.
Macon Magazine: Do you think that any of the other changes the Air Force is making, like maternity flight suits for women, have an impact on women continuing to serve?
Gen. Hammerstedt: Our training was really gender neutral. We were all issued the same combat boots and the same uniforms. In military culture, we joke and call it “general issue.” But now maybe that traditional mentality of general issue, or, everybody’s the same cookie cutter, is going away, because we’re not the same. It’s just part of the larger idea of: We can be better than mass issuing. I wear the female uniform because I think it fits better. But if they didn’t offer it, I would have worn the male uniform.
Col. Holbeck: I don’t think those changes would draw more people, because I don’t think they would know about them. I don’t think it would retain them, because the reasons that people stay are bigger than hairstyle or fit of the uniform. But it does help, because then they may realize that people are really listening.
MM: What do you feel are the most rewarding, and the most challenging, aspects of your positions?
Col. Holbeck: The people — absolutely. To be a part of developing someone in such a way that they meet either their personal and professional goals, to be a part of mentoring and shaping their development is obviously rewarding. We like to say we’re better together, and I like to say that I want everybody to be their best. Whether that means in my organization or somewhere else, I want you to be your best because when you’re your best, we’re all better. So, it’s job satisfaction in the people, but oh my goodness, the people challenges. Nothing surprises me anymore.
Col. Droz: As leaders, and especially the higher up you go, you can make an impact in somebody’s life without realizing it. As a lieutenant, I could just talk to people and it was just talking. But now, in my role, if I stop and I talk to somebody, it makes a difference in their day. As a counterpoint, the challenge is not being able to help or to fix their individual problems or get them the resources they need. Everybody has an individual issue and a problem and I only have 24 hours in the day. And almost every minute is filled up, and if it’s not filled up with something at work, it’s filled up with something at home. I’m a people person, so I love being able to help people, and I get frustrated when I’m not able to get something done.
MM: As you advance in rank, does it become more difficult to balance family, personal time and work? Do you have strategies to handle it?
Col. Droz: I have always prioritized my family. I took a squadron command when my twins were 6 weeks old, but I had a boss who probably understood what I was going through a little bit better than I did, and helped me understand priorities. As a leader, I try not to spend all my time in the office, because when I do, my office staff feels it necessary to spend all their time in the office. But it also helps me balance my life a little bit more. Now my kids are playing soccer, so I prioritize: I’m going to go take my daughters to soccer. I’m going to go to their games. You also have to make time with your spouse a priority and also make time for you to be a human being. We talk about resiliency in our Airmen and helping to balance that. As leaders, we have to show them that it’s not just a tagline that the Air Force is putting out there, but that we really believe in resiliency.
Gen. Hammerstedt: What I’ve found, over the years, is that I actually build in controls for myself because it’s one thing to say, “I’m going to take my kids to soccer practice.” It’s another thing to tell your exec, “Every Tuesday block me out of the office at four o’clock, and nobody schedules on top of that.” For me, it’s about figuring out what those priorities are and then actually having a battle rhythm and committing to it.
Col. Carns: I tell my team to put my personal appointments on my calendar. We have a family lunch on Wednesday every week together. Putting those things on the schedule so that it’s visible and everybody knows that you’re doing something personal, that’s okay. They need to know you’re a human being, and if they see that you’re prioritizing this, then they’ll realize it’s okay for them to have a life, too. If they think the commander’s a machine, they’ll think they’re supposed to be a machine, and then you permeate that culture throughout the organization. If I don’t live some kind of balanced, organized life, that’s going to permeate the organization.
Col. Droz: When I first came in as a maintenance officer, you knew what time the boss’ car was in the parking lot, and you were there before then, and you didn’t leave until the boss was gone in the afternoon. It was almost like a badge of honor. It wasn’t even about the quality of work, it was about the quantity of work. Now, we’re all in on resilient Airmen, and to do that you have to balance your life.
MM: What could the community do better to support the base and its resilient workforce?
Col. Holbeck: We get that question all the time and the answer is always the same: I don’t think they could do any better. Like, it’s just unbelievable.
Col. Droz: I think this community is absolutely incredible. We’ve been all over the country, and communities that surround military bases are justifiably proud of the connections that they have. But in this community, it’s incredible.
Gen. Hammerstedt: If you look at the civilian workforce here on base, that’s a unique thing in this community. People always talk about “the base” — like, it’s always “the base.” But there’s a certain respect when they say it. There’s that love for “the base” that exists, that’s kind of unique here, which is cool.
MM: What do you want people to know about your work at Robins Air Force Base?
Gen. Hammerstedt: We’re getting ready to celebrate 80 years here at the base. So, Sept. 1, 1941, we broke ground at Robins Air Force Base. It wasn’t called that at the time, but this air patch was established to generate airpower for the United States Air Force in 1941 and we’ve been doing that mission for 80 years. The thing I would love to tell the community is that not only do we still do that mission, but that air power is generated by men and women who live right here in Middle Georgia. Part of my responsibility is ensuring that we have a culture here where people want their daughters and their granddaughters out here because that’s what we’ve been doing for 80 years. I want to broadcast what a privilege it is to serve, and the people who work here are the very best at what they do. Robins AFB and the tremendous men and women who serve here are a national treasure, right here in Middle Georgia.
Col. Carns: I would love for them to know that we’re out in the community as well. So, our Airmen and civilians are soccer coaches and volunteers and teachers and principals, and they are not just serving our military but they also are helping the community. They have this heart and spirit for service, and they take that off base, too, to make the community better.