Meet the latest woman veteran running for Congress — JETMOM

Elizabeth Howe
September 09, 2019 - 2:11 pm
Kim Olson, United States Air Force

Kim Olson

There's a new woman veteran running for Congress.

Air Force veteran Kim Olson is running for District 24 in Texas — but this campaign is far from the first "battle" Olson — call sign "JETMOM" — has fought. The retired colonel spent 28 years breaking barriers in military aviation — and now she's using those skills to hopefully break through barriers in Congress. Connecting Vets spoke with Olson about her career, the obstacles she has overcome and her plans for her future in politics. 

Connecting Vets: First, can you talk about why you joined the military? 

Kim Olson: Well, it was my mother's fault. I had come out of college, it was the early 80s, women were entering all these non-traditional career fields, and I had a job offer to teach biology — and a chance to join the Air Force. My mom is a long-time educator, and I was walking on a beach wringing my hands as to what to do as a 21-year old, and I looked at her and said, "I think I'm going to take the teaching job — follow in your footsteps." She reached out lovingly and promptly thumped me on the head and said, "That was the only option I had when I got out of college. I want you to think again." 

So I joined the Air Force. 

CV: But you did more than just join the Air Force. You became a pilot.

KO: At the time, they hadn't allowed women to go through a commissioning source and pick up a flight training slot. I had applied to change my (Air Force Specialty Code), and they said, "No you can't do that because you're a female." "But I scored better than the men, I had all the qualifications, that's just not fair". Honestly, those were my words at 21. 

So the long and the short of it, through a series of kind of funny events, we actually got the Air Force policy to change — to allow women who were in OTS at the time to get flight slots. I became part of the first generation of female pilots. I was the first at my flight school and the only woman at the time which was very interesting — there's a whole book on that one. But that's how I got into flight school, that's how I got into commissioning and then that's how I got into flight school.

CV: Being part of that first generation had to have come with a lot of obstacles. How did you overcome those? 

KO: Here's what I found. And, again, this is all in retrospect. But — on a base of about 5,000 men — there was a third of men who think, "Hey, this is pretty cool, women are starting to fly airplanes." Then there was a third on the other side of the spectrum: "Oh my God, the wings of the jets are going to fall off because someone with breasts is flying them. Democracy is going to end as we know it because women are now..." fill in the blank. And then there was a third in the middle that said, "Well, let's just wait and see how they do." 

It took me a couple years to figure out not to waste my time, my energy, my tears on the guys that thought I had no business being there. That I would reinforce those that welcomed the change in the military and I would work hard in the job that I was in to basically role model and show those that were still on the fence that women could fly jets, women could go to war, women could lead, women could have families, we could have children, we could rise to the rank of colonel in a very male-dominated field like military aviation. And not just rise but be successful and fundamentally change the environment for the better because of our leadership skillsets.

I think that's the most important thing.

I didn't just open doors for women in the military — I took them off the damn hinges. And they need to stay off.

CV: What advice do you have for other leaders — maybe particularly females in male-dominated roles? 

KO: Yeah it's great to fly airplanes. Yeah, it's great to get medals and get promoted below the zone and all those great things. But your true mark as a leader, man or woman, is the impact you have on those that you lead.

I'm the first woman to command an operational flying squadron so you can imagine the pressure you put on yourself and the system puts on you. And I always remember getting in my car, looking at myself in the rearview mirror, and saying, "What have you done for your squadron today?"

And if you ask yourself every day, "What have I done for..." and fill in the blank — it's amazing how it sets you up.

CV: How has your military career prepared you for the next step in your career — campaigning? 

KO: I just think vets make the best candidates. We are disciplined. We understand hard work. We know what it's like to put in 18, 19, 22-hour days, and we're not afraid of it. 

I think many of us who put boots on the ground understand the impacts of war and combat and perpetual wars. And if we get ourselves in elected positions we can speak to that and have an incredible credibility that hardly anybody else can have. And I think that especially women vets — with the grind a lot of us had to go through to get to where we were and be successful in that environment, helps prepare you for politics

For all that women have been doing over the years, breaking that last bastion of male dominance in the military — all those skill sets will apply to the political arena. Because I would offer you that is the last bastion of male dominance that is not diverse. So I think women vets and vets as a whole bring an incredible amount of skill to the political arena.

CV: What are your plans for Congress? What will your first steps be? 

KO: How you work in Congress are the committees you get on, so that would be my first thing. If you get on the Defense Approp committee, that puts you in line to help the active duty. Part of that would be — we've been in 19 years of war now with Afghanistan — looking at how best to repurpose our military and give it the tools, not just the personnel but the equipment, to move into the 21st and 22nd century. That would be a priority. And because I've been a commander and been to war several times, I think I can speak to that. 

Two, my heart — because I ran a nonprofit for five years helping women vets — sits with the VA. We've done a lot of work in the VA and we've worked really hard to get care, but I just gave an interview yesterday about our suicide rate. We just have not been able to get that under control with our vets. And 2/3 of our suicide comes from folks who have little to no access to healthcare — whether it's the VA or any kind of care. If you want to stop the suicide rate you have to get veterans access to care.

And the third is — and I believe this, given my global perspective and deploying all over the world — I'd love to sit on the Foreign Affairs committee because the United States used to be the peacemaker, we were the broker, we brought warring factions together. And now we're being viewed as the bully on the block. And I think it's important if the U.S. wants to keep its platform as a world leader that we have to present ourselves as a reasonable country that's going to do right by the world as a whole. 

And all of this is intertwined. None of it sits in its own silo. I know it's hard, and these sound like really easy answers — but you need people willing to stand up. 

Beyond politics, I hope that my running shows both male and female vets that there's a place for you once you leave the military, that your leadership skill sets are needed, all up and down the ballot. It is so important that you step into your community — which most vets do — but I really encourage vets to run for offices at all levels. Whether it's local all the way up to — we've got a vet running for presidency. And it's good that we get into the political game so that we can have a say and help our brothers and sisters who wear the uniform. 

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