CALIFORNIA CITY — When Cheryl Bridges joined the U.S. Air Force March 7, 1974, the Asheville, N.C., native was fulfilling a childhood dream.
“I always knew since I was little that I wanted to go in,” Bridges said. “All the girls were nurses or teachers or something girly like that. I was a tomboy. I also saw that all my uncles and my brother were in the military.”
Bridges said seeing how her brother, who had served in the Air Force, traveled and earned an education also inspired her.
“I wanted to do something different, to do something that made sense to me,” Bridges said. Despite some pushback about women not serving in the military, she had made up her mind.
Prior to enlisting, Bridges said her father provided her a compromise — she attend two years of college and she could enlist, so she earned a nursing degree from Catawba University in Salisbury, N.C. She then took a position at Bowman Gray Hospital prior to enlisting.
Bridges enlisted at a time when the Vietnam War was drawing to its close. She noted that it was a relief to her parents, as no one wishes to see their children or loved ones entering into war.
“Even though it didn’t bother me, I understood where they were coming from,” Bridges said.
As she entered service, Bridges said she drew a lot of inspiration from icons such as Rosie the Riveter, the WWII poster image used to recruit women workers into defense industry jobs for the war effort.
“It was hard and it was different,” Bridges said. “A lot of people said that if you can get through basic and tech school that’s the hard part. It wasn’t, it came after that.”
Bridges said discipline earned from her parents and grandparents helped cement her place in the military.
“It wasn’t bad being a woman in the military,” she said. “You had to do a little more than what you needed to do — you had to be stronger and not have thin skin. You had a lot of men who didn’t want to work under you, but once they got to know you and got to see your work ethic, it was okay and you had people on your side.”
Bridges served as an aircraft technician for cargo planes including the KC-135 and C-5s than 20 years prior to her separation.
“It was fun but hard,” Bridges said. “I had always thought of it as working on a car but it is so far beyond that.”
Bridges duty stations included Dover, Delaware; Royal Airforce Fairford in England; and then to Edwards Air Force Base from 1984 to 1994, where she retired.
“I flew with my planes so I got a lot of [temporary duty travel],” Bridges said. “We went to a lot of places and got to do a lot of things people just aren’t finding out about.”
Some missions included supporting troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and flying shipments and cargo to where they were needed.
“One of my most memorable moments was when went from here to Florida to do an exercise with Egland Air Force Base, but I did not know how to swim,” she said. “The exercise part of it was where you had to jump out of a plane — parked at the time — and into some water to save yourself. I kept telling them I couldn’t swim and they ‘We’ll teach you.’”
The lesson turned out memorable, she said.
Another powerful moment was on a 1990 mission to Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War.
“When I went to Saudi, I saw a whole different world ... I saw bombing, I couldn’t believe the way people lived where they didn’t have to,” Bridges said. “I always thought I didn’t want that to happen in the United States ... I didn’t want that to happen to my grandchildren.”
After Bridges retired, she and her family stayed in the California City area. She said both her husband and she had several job opportunities line up on Edwards Air Force Base.
“I didn’t return to the flight line right away, I ended up in IT,” Bridges said. “The kids were in school and I didn’t want to pull them out. They would go to school for three years and you’d have to pull them out and start all over, so I didn’t want to do that again.”
Advice to veterans
As a retired veteran, Bridges’ advice to fellow veterans is to stay engaged with others and make connections.
“It’s hard for a lot of people who have never done anything and are pushed into it,” Bridges said, adding she was fortunate than some. “A lot of older veterans are dealing with a lot of things right now, like medical instances, and we’ve got to help to make a better transition. They can never give up ... that’s not what we fought for.”
She also encourages those veterans who don’t find employment right after separation to be patient and reach out to organizations such as the American Legion and VFW or local Veterans Affairs branches.
“There are people there that want to help you,” Bridges said. “It was easy for me because I had worked with people before ... so make friends, network. Make friends with people of all races and dynamics - you never know who’s going to reach out.”
Support for military veterans has improved since the day of the Vietnam War, she added. Veterans and troops returning home during the Vietnam War era received poor treatment at a time when anti-war sentiment in the U.S. was at a high; they faced everything from slurs and insults to protests and orchestration.
“I had cousins who returned from Vietnam who couldn’t walk on the streets or return to their own neighborhoods because people asked ‘why did you go to that war for’ and things like that,” Bridges said. “They didn’t deserve it and those guys that went into Vietnam were 16, 17, 18 years old ... you often didn’t have a choice.”
Military service in any branch comes with a level of training not seen in past eras, Bridges said, especially as the world continues to evolve technologically.
“It’s the way we’re heading,” Bridges said. “It doesn’t have to be training for working on a plane, it could be skills used in an office.”
Bridges, a member of the American Legion, said veterans’ organizations such as hers often help.
“We help with making a lot of the laws that benefit veterans coming out — and a lot of us older veterans like medical care,” Bridges said. “Organizations are also places that have a lot of comradery and they bring out community work. It’s someplace where you can just go and be around people that understand you and have the same ideals. Everybody needs that.”