When Jean Bennett joined the Air Force only three percent of its ranks were women. She went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base as the Vietnam War came to a close. After a battery of aptitude tests, she was sent to technical training, hoping to become an accountant because of her bookkeeping background.
“The [Air Force] said, ‘No we don’t need you to do that’ but I did have one of two choices,” she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I could be a jet mechanic or a missile mechanic.” She chose to be a missile mechanic because they made more money.
In 1974, Jean was a divorceé with a child, living with her mother. She joined the Air Force so she wouldn’t be forced to marry again just to have someone support her and the baby.
“My mother of all people approached me and suggested military service as an option,” she recalled. She would be only the fifth woman ever to train to be a missile mechanic. She trained at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois before moving on to her permanent station in Wyoming for the next nine years. She rose in rank quickly, and in five years she had outranked her first team chief.
“We went into training on the Minuteman Missile III, where we were responsible for removing or replacing the warheads, guidance system and propulsion systems,” Bennett said. She would also train on ground-launched cruise missiles in Tucson, and be sent to Sicily, Whiteman AFB, and after President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, she traveled around Russia as part of an on-site inspections crew to ensure the Soviet Union was complying with its part of the treaty.
Many of the men she worked with were “some of the best men who ever walked.” Others, she told her local newspaper, didn’t cope well with her success.
“I had to explain to one, you can’t call me ‘Sergeant honey,'” Bennett said. “A lot of guys called me ‘Mom.’ That was cool.”
“We would go to various missile bases in Russia … and we would watch them destroy them by either blowing them up or cutting them into pieces,” Bennett said.” She left the Air Force in 1993 as a Senior Master Sergeant (E-8).
“When I retired, I think I was the only woman Senior Master Sergeant in my field. For years, I was the highest ranking woman that worked on missiles because I was one of the first.” Men in Italy and Russia were unaccustomed to seeing a woman drive trucks or working in a leadership capacity. they often brought or threw flowers to her as she drove around local towns.
When she left the Air Force, Jean went back to college where she earned a Masters in Information Technology. She then took a job at the Weatherford, Texas Public Library, quietly living out the deserved retirement of one of the Air Force’s best ICBM maintainers.
“I was offered lucrative positions in defense contracting, but I didn’t want to do that,” Bennett said. ” I’m always hanging out in libraries anyway.”