“There are some little girls out there who are still told, ‘No, you can’t,’ just because they’re a girl. When I started thinking about it from that perspective, it gave me a little bit more motivation to come in and do a good job and show them that, ‘Yes, you can.’ If I can help encourage one little girl out there to pursue her dreams, then great.” -Angela Ochoa (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
A retrospective conversation with Col. Angela Ochoa, commanding officer of the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, hits a lot of familiar high notes. Topics such as the desire to serve one’s country, with the importance of mentors and the satisfaction of leading others all taking their respective places in the dialogue.
It’s only when the subject elephant in the room is broached — what it means to her to be the first female C.O. in the air base’s history — that Ochoa’s patter takes on a slightly different pitch.
“When I first came in, I was kind of annoyed by the question,” she says, voice level as the horizon. “Because if I’m being honest, I thought to myself, ‘It shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter that I’m a male or a female. I’m just me and I’m just here to do my job.’
“It took a couple of people to help me realize I needed to look at it from a different perspective. And I did start to look at it from a different perspective. I realized that I have been very fortunate and blessed in my life. I’ve had people cheering me on, parents that have been supportive, teachers that have been supportive, mentors, coaches, lots of people that have helped me get here. But that’s not everybody.
“There are some little girls out there who are still told, ‘No, you can’t,’ just because they’re a girl. When I started thinking about it from that perspective, it gave me a little bit more motivation to come in and do a good job and show them that, ‘Yes, you can.’ If I can help encourage one little girl out there to pursue her dreams, then great.”
Any young person — male or female — could do worse than emulate Ochoa’s rise to prominence in the U.S. Air Force. Be it answering the call of deployment, balancing professional and personal responsibilities or advocating for changed mindsets concerning mental health, the 43-year-old offers a lot of light by which others can find their way through life’s darkness.
“She absolutely is who should be leading right now,” says Nancy Taylor of Alexandria, Va., who has known Ochoa since both were at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I don’t know that there’s anything she could rise to that I would be like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy!’ Every time she’s challenged, she steps up to it and leads and exceeds it.
“She is an example that if you work really hard and you rise to the challenges that you’re presented, there really isn’t a limit to what you can do.”
A base commander’s role is all-encompassing, as everything under the sun — from mission operations and personnel development to finances — radiates in some way back to her desk. And although this is Ochoa’s first such assignment, she brings a wealth of diverse experiences that make her uniquely qualified to lead the 19th Airlift Wing, nicknamed Herk Nation.
“My role as a wing commander and as the installation commander is absolutely to set the mission, vision and priorities for this wing,” she says. “I am the spokesperson for our wing and for this base to our community, to our higher headquarters, to Air Mobility Command. I’m an advocate for our airmen and for our mission. That mission and vision is dictated to us, but we identify how we’re going to execute that.
“I am a developer of people, a talent manager. Part of my role is to help lead, coach, shape and teach our replacements. I’m constantly out there trying to help develop our force. We have to take care of our airmen, we have to get our mission done and we have to make sure we have the right culture here.”
CAREER CALLING FROM A ROOFTOP
Very little happens during Ochoa’s day that isn’t scheduled, mapped, scripted or prophesied in some regulations manual somewhere. But her military career has also, at times, unfolded with a peculiar randomness. Asked what led her to the service in the first place, she chuckles about a childhood neighbor.
“I say that I stumbled into [military service],” she says. “I didn’t come from a military family and that was not really my intent and my plan. My neighbor was a recruiter for the Air Force Academy and I’ll never forget it. It was a spring day, and he was working on his roof. I remember him calling down, ‘Come on over! I’ll tell you about the Air Force Academy!’ And I thought, ‘No way. I don’t want to do it.’ But I went over and I listened.”
After the presentation, Ochoa was still lukewarm on the idea, but the recruiter hooked her up with the USAF’s Summer Scientific Seminar, held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. She came home with a different perspective.
“I went out there and got to see the Air Force Academy, met the people, learned more about the science and the math, which I loved,” she says. “I came home and told my parents, ‘Wow! I could see myself going there.'”
To hear Ochoa tell it, her time at the Air Force Academy was not much different from any other collegiate experience, save for military jargon and protocols. From cadets through the officer ranks, women were not the anomaly they were a couple of decades prior, creating what Ochoa called an inclusive atmosphere.
“It was an amazing place to go to school,” she says. “Most of the time in my squadron there, I was one of four to six females in a group of about 25 males in my class year. I never felt alone. I always felt supported. I always felt like I had good friends and I made friends easily there, both good girl friends and guy friends.”
TRYING THAT PILOT THING
If anything set her apart from her classmates, it was Ochoa’s attitude regarding post-Academy life. Surrounded by double-A personalities living by ironclad five-year plans, she stood out for her singularly go-with-the-flow outlook until junior year.
“I was at a speech by the commandant of cadets where he talked about his flying career and his deployments and all of his amazing experiences,” she says. “I walked out of Arnold Hall and it was dark and I remember looking up at the mountains that were silhouetted and thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try that pilot thing. That sounds fun.'”
At this she laughs at how glib that makes her life-altering decision sound.
“I’m a driven person. When I set my mind to doing something, I’m going to make it happen,” she says. “It wasn’t like I had a lackadaisical attitude, even though it sounds like that. Once I decided I was going to pilot training it was, ‘I am going to be successful at this.'”
Ochoa’s competitive fire was stoked even more by a fellow airman whose approach to his military career was very different yet whose life would become inexorably entwined with hers, her husband, Ruben. The two came in together as freshmen and their friendship gradually evolved into a serious relationship and marriage after graduation.
“I will tell you, when I first realized there could be something more between us, I mentioned it to him and his response to me was, ‘Yeah, I feel it too, but this has been my lifelong dream. I’m here so I can fly airplanes. I’m not going to get distracted right now,'” she says. “Essentially, he turned me down and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Eh, he’ll come around.'”
Ochoa wasn’t just a placeholder at flight school. Despite starting three weeks behind Ruben, she was such a good student (training both at Laughlin AFB and the Naval Air Station in Texas) she made up the stagger and the duo received their wings at the same time. She even scored better than he did overall, bragging rights she toted along when the couple was jointly assigned to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska in 2003.
“My husband is the complete opposite of me. He grew up outside of Luke Air Force Base and from the time he was 2 years old and saw planes, he wanted to be a pilot,” she says. “For me, the motivation after graduation was that my husband and I could both end up at the same location together. I wanted to do well and I wanted to perform well, but I also wanted to make sure that my husband and I could be stationed together at the end of all this. And we were.”
Four years in Alaska was followed by her first assignment to Little Rock AFB, where between 2007 and 2011, she was wing executive officer and evaluator pilot with the 50th Airlift Squadron. Between 2011 and 2014, she saw a different side of military operations, serving two years as joint strategic planner at the Pentagon and a year’s internship in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University in Washington.
She returned to LRAFB in 2015 as chief of safety, then served two years there as commander of 61st Airlift Squadron, with a stint in Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield thrown in for good measure. Her last three years were with Scott AFB in Illinois where she served as chief of senior leader management for Air Mobility Command and then vice commander, 375th Air Mobility Wing.
ONE LONG LEADERSHIP JOURNEY
With each assignment, the art and science of leadership and teamwork have been reinforced in new and different ways.
“I personally look at life as one long leadership journey,” she says. “Every step along the way, clubs I was involved in and different leadership opportunities I had either in high school or at the Air Force Academy were all opportunities to learn and grow as a leader. I think that growth mindset was something my parents instilled in me. We’re all learning and we’re all growing in this journey of life.
“At the same time, everything we do is about being a part of a team and making sure the mission can happen working together as a team. That’s what a crew concept is all about. Every unit here, we all have to pitch in and do other things to take care of all that needs to get done, all the processes that have to happen, all the behind-the-scenes work that happens every single day in order to get those aircraft up in the air.”
As time has gone on, the military branches have come to learn more about what keeps teams performing at maximum effectiveness, starting with the team members themselves. Issues of diversity and mental health have grown in prominence as a result, Ochoa says.
“I think that a lot of the things that we saw in 2020 helped illuminate some of the challenges that not only our nation faces but our military faces as well. I acknowledge that. We have work to do,” she says. “Diversity, for me, is a national fighting imperative. It’s mission critical that we have a diverse force because diverse teams make better decisions and they’re more successful. I want to be on a successful team.
“An inclusive environment allows everyone to be involved, allows everyone to feel that they belong and lets everyone reach their fullest potential. Does it affect us? Absolutely. Do we need to get better? Hundred percent. I think the best thing we can do is acknowledge where we have room to grow and then get after it.”
GET HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT
Ochoa is even more passionate about the mental health needs of America’s current fighting force and its veterans. She regularly visits the concern with her subordinates, encouraging them to get help when needed.
“Don’t wait ’til you’re done. Don’t wait ’til you’re out of the service. We need to encourage our members to get the help they need at the time they need it,” she says. “Suppressing those feelings and holding them back and compartmentalizing them and not letting yourself feel, that was the culture when I first got in. What we’re seeing now is leaders that are showing us self-care is important. You need help, you go get help. Ask for help. If you need a mental health professional, if you need to talk to a chaplain, you go do that. That is something emulated in the entire chain of command.”
To reinforce this, Ochoa has been frank and open about her own need for counseling during her career.
“I do share with my airmen that I have been to counseling, go to counseling and seek help,” she says. “I don’t shy away from telling people that my husband and I have been to marriage counseling and I have been to counseling and how it’s helped me become a better person. It’s not just about telling people to go do it, it’s sharing with them that I’ve done it and how it’s helped me get better.”
This openness helps form a bond between Ochoa and the personnel under her command, which in Little Rock translates to 3,000 in the wing and 10,000 who work on the installation.
“In order to be a good leader, you have to be credible,” says her USAF Academy roommate Kylene Ruth of East Helena, Mont. “I think what makes her special is she gives her people a little peek behind the curtain. She’s known for being very transparent and communicating the realities of what it’s like to have two young kids, a spouse and be in such a high-powered job.
“She is also the best listener I have ever met. In the military, we often reward people who when they hear a problem instantly jump to with a solution. Angela is phenomenal at sitting down and listening to people talk and going, ‘That’s so interesting. I want to understand more. How can I be of support to you? Can I ask you questions to understand your experience?'”
Ochoa assumes command at a time of change in the nature of warfare, saying future conflicts will be more technological with things like cybercrime causing as much devastation as the bombs of yesteryear. Today’s men and women in uniform will be subjected to new threats and pressures as a result, demanding new ways to care for their well-being during and after their service.
These challenges, as well as the incumbent tasks of keeping the air fleet fit and ready to fly at a moment’s notice, are ones she welcomes wholeheartedly in a place that’s been more home to her than any during a long and decorated career.
“I never saw myself staying in as long as I have. Never saw myself in the position of leadership that I am in now. I just went ahead and performed to the best of my ability and here I am,” she says. “I could not be prouder to be here. One of our daughters was born here and both of our daughters have spent more time here than any other state. My husband and I have spent more of our adult lives in Arkansas than any other state. It is home in a lot of ways.”
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 18, 1979, Cincinnati
• FAMILY: Husband Raul, married July 2001; daughters Elsa, 11, and Seanna, 9
• MY FAVORITE MOVIE IS: “The Sound of Music.”
• MY BIGGEST GUILTY PLEASURE IS: Chocolate
• WHEN I AM NOT WORKING, YOU’RE MOST LIKELY TO FIND ME: Hanging out with my family.
• MY PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT IS: Raising two amazing young women.
• MY FAVORITE QUOTE COMES FROM MAYA ANGELOU. SHE SAID: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
• THE WORD THAT BEST DESCRIBES ME IS: Passionate
“I could not be prouder to be here. One of our daughters was born here and both of our daughters have spent more time here than any other state. My husband and I have spent more of our adult lives in Arkansas than any other state. It is home in a lot of ways.” -Angela Ochoa (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Print Headline: Col. Angela F. Ochoa