Inaugural Torch Athena conference brings female Airmen, Guardians together

  • Published
  • By 2d Lt Lauren Niemi
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

In the heart of San Antonio, a historic event took place between Sept. 19-21: the first-ever annual Torch Athena Conference. The event was dedicated to celebrating the efforts and milestones of women in the Air Force, as well as discussing how to lower barriers to service and to further equality within the service.

Athena events are regularly hosted at other major commands, but Torch Athena was the first within the Air Education and Training Command. Named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, strategy, and courage, Athena is seen as both an example and a representation of the female servicemember. Holding such an event in a MAJCOM centered around training allowed for the panel to impact multiple generations of Airmen at the same time.

“It is inspiring to meet all of these women in different roles in the Air Force, and to be able to connect with them makes it even better,” said Kaleigh Moss, an attendee and Gold Bar Recruiter from the 311th Recruiting Squadron, “The community among women in the Air Force is unique and close-knit through shared backgrounds and experiences, and I’m happy to know that they’ll be there when I need them most.”

The conference began with words from some of the Air Force's most influential voices, including Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass and AETC Commander Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson.

They were followed by several other female general officers, including Maj. Gen. Michele Edmondson, commander, Second Air Force; Brig. Gen. Linell Letendre, Dean of Faculty, U.S. Air Force Academy; Brig. Gen. Lisa Craig, Deputy Commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service; Brig. Gen. Leslie Hadley, Mobilization Assistant to the Director of Operations, Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command; and Brig. Gen. Michelle Hayworth, Director of Command, Control, Communications, and Cyber (C4) Systems for U.S. Transportation Command. Each speaker championed diversity and inclusion within the Air Force, drawing on experiences from throughout their careers.

Attendees were also able to learn more from successful women in various career fields, including aviators, a SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape) medic, security forces defenders, and one of only five female TACPs (Tactical Air Control Party) in the Air Force. They shared tales of overcoming adversity, breaking barriers, and excelling in male-dominated fields. Their journeys were a testament to the indomitable spirit of women in uniform.

“Torch Athena is a solid reminder that we aren’t alone, despite what it may look like when we look around,” said 1st Lt. Sonja Datta, an instructor pilot from Sheppard Air Force Base’s 80th Flying Training Wing, “It serves to add to our perspective and also validate our experiences. Our goal should be to normalize women in the military to the point and the numbers that Torch Athena is no longer necessary, nor feasible!”

The conference provided a unique platform for attendees to network and engage in open discussions about how to improve the Air Force. The men and women in attendance contributed their diverse viewpoints for military readiness, and an understanding that a more inclusive Air Force leads to stronger, more innovative solutions to the challenges of national defense.

After two days of discussion, Torch Athena was taken to the flightline, where aircraft from across the country and various missions opened their doors for young girls from throughout the San Antonio area to explore. There was everything from the T-6 Texan to the F-35A Lightning II to the KC-46 Pegasus and C-17 Globemaster.

There were also other aviation-adjacent careers present, from Airborne Cryptologic Language Analysts to medical evacuation personnel to aircraft maintainers. There was truly something of interest to everyone who explored the tarmac, highlighting the incredible achievements of women who had shattered glass ceilings throughout history.

As the event came to a close, Torch Athena had left a lasting impression on everyone in multiple ways, whether through the panels on stage or the newly fostered community among the attendees. 

“I left inspired to rise to the standards that need to be met, as well as reflect on areas that can be better reformed,” said Capt. Caroline Gagnon, an instructor pilot in the 80th Flying Training Wing. “That way, you allow women to use their talents to best support the Air Force’s mission.”

“The panels were awesome! However, getting the chance to meet and collaborate with other like-minded people and hearing their stories was probably my favorite part,” said Tech. Sgt. Brittany Ward, Apprentice Course NCOIC, Electrical Power Production.