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Denise Donnell: Mom and Commander

“The sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, whether it is the National Science foundation or the New York Air National Guard, is a pretty incredible feeling and one of the best things I have got out of being in the military,” says the colonel, wife, and mother of two who likes to play LEGOs with her kids and has chased pirates in the South China Sea.

Denise Donnell is currently the Air Expeditionary Group Commander of support forces in Antarctica, and is responsible for all Military forces south of 60 degrees. “We provide the logistical muscle,” Donnell explains. She oversees all the moving parts of the Military at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, coordinating between the Air National Guard, the Coast Guard, Navy cargo folks, and the National Science Foundation. “Its and opportunity of a lifetime to be in Antarctica,” says the pilot, who ensures that all groups are working well together.

The 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard works to support the 139th Airlift Squadron of the Guard, who fly on continent missions to support science in various deep field camps. They also fly inter-continental missions between Antarctica and New Zealand, transporting people and cargo via 3-4 flight lines a day, scheduled around the clock of the Austral summer, utilizing the 24 hours of sunlight.

The Coast Guard journeys to the end of the earth on board the Polar Star Icebreaker, clearing a channel to Ross Island and making way for the fueling vessel and the cargo re-supply vessel bringing provisions from the other side of the planet such as next year's food.

As the Polar Star smashes the ice and opens up the water of the Ross Sea, it makes way for some of the favorite and more unique resident species of Antarctica to make their way to the shores of McMurdo Station.

Coordinating all this on the harshest continent on Earth is a tremendous responsibility for Commander Donnell.

The colonel has flown a variety of aircrafts, including the P-3 Orion sub hunter, the C-5 Galaxy, the C-17 Globemaster and the LC-130 Hercules.

“The C-5 is big and opens both from the front and back, and the C-17 is just cool!”

The daughter of a Navy doctor dad and a Navy nurse mom, it just made sense to go to Georgetown University, graduate in International politics and become a pilot.

After falling in love and moving to New York, Donnell flew with the Air National Guard before accepting the position of Group Commander. “One of the best jobs in the Air Force is maintenance officer and pilot. You just can’t beat that combination, I get to fly the airplanes and work with the guys who fix them. It’s the best of both worlds.” This non-traditional role is a bit like having two full time jobs, but Donnell feels it helps give her a better perspective.

Her mantra for balancing family and career is getting eight hours of sleep a night and having a very supportive husband, who is a former Army Ranger. "Maintaining a sense of humor and situational awareness helps to keep a balance," says the soccer mom. When not far from home, Denise loves to hold her kids hands and is on her way to tackling hiking the highest 46 peaks in the Adirondacks, she has summited three of them. The Colonel also wants to learn how to play the piano, laughing as she tells me “We own a piano and that’s the first step.”

She thinks her role in life as a mother and a Colonel gives children a sense that they can do whatever they want to do, whatever they put their mind towards. “Any working woman or working Dad needs to give their kids a sense that anything is possible. I can be a pilot and a Commander in the military and deploy to Antarctica.” She hopes this is the message she can pass along to her children.

Donnells part in the military as a woman is a rare one. “I am not the first woman to have done anything, I wasn’t the first naval aviator, or the first female commander,” she says. But she is just behind the first, and has absolutely benefited from those women. Her position is unique and she believes she is the first AEG woman commander to serve in Antarctica. Her hope is to be a good role model for all officers, male and female.

The deployment to Antarctica is unique for her because she is not just surrounded by other military people. Denise finds it refreshing to be at McMurdo Station due to the diverse population: “You have people here that have biked across Asia, or have worked on archaeological digs. It is exciting to hear a different perspective on life, its fun and it makes you think.” Also unique to Antarctica is that the mission is all in support of science.

Some of Donnell's favorite deployment moments include flying the P3 during a surface surveillance mission chasing pirates in the South China Sea, and being launched on a search and rescue mission to find a stranded sailboat with three souls on board. “Locating them and dropping supplies with about 15 minutes of fuel left to execute the mission was pretty awesome and rewarding.” Donnell recalls that flying in the Sydney, Australia air show was also “pretty neat."

Optimism is a word that resonates well with Denise while talking about words of wisdom for life. “I’m a firm believer that If you have an optimistic attitude things are still going to suck sometimes, but if you can have that faith, that vision, of, okay, yes it’s tough right now, but I know where I want to see myself. If you don’t have that vision, you are not going to accomplish anything.” Some say that optimists live longer, but Denise’s thought is, maybe they just enjoy life more.

“Until now I haven't been the first female anything. I haven’t climbed Everest, but I have been part of something pretty awesome. Something bigger than myself, it makes a difference if Denise Donnell gets up and comes to work.” All throughout my career, I've followed in the footsteps of women who have been the first female aviators, P-3 instructor pilots. I've just worked as hard as possible to the best pilot, officer and commander that I can be."

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