Air Force Trailblazer, Sandra Ortega
The word “ebullient” comes to mind when I think of Dr. Sandra Ortega, an Air Force veteran who joined our VBC Happy Hour for the first time back in May. Sandy’s high-spirited approach to life no doubt saw her through the trials of serving as the first direct-commissioned Black woman officer in the United States Air Force. As an officer and, later, a civilian employee, Sandy blazed trails in the military community by promoting better family support, more drug and alcohol prevention counseling, and improved higher education and healthcare. Below, she shares her remarkable story of joining the USAF Officer Corps during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Sandra Ortega 1958 (Courtesy Ortega Family)
Written by Todd DePastino
On July 4, 1958, I landed at Lackland Air Force Base to begin six months at the Officer Basic Military Course (OBMC). If I made it, I’d become a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, the first Black woman to hold that rank.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself had selected me to serve in this pioneering role.
To this day, I have no idea how it happened.
I never had any thought of joining the military, and my family certainly didn’t encourage it. I was a bookish twenty-year-old senior at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, when Army ROTC commander, Colonel Willard Stewart and Chief Warrant Officer Goode came to our house to talk to my parents about it.
Mind you, I was never consulted, even though they were discussing my future.
I remember that first visit vividly. I was coming home from a day of classes. I had to take three buses to get to back to West Baltimore and our house by the railroad tracks on the corner. As I approached our block, I looked up and saw my mom, dad, and sister sitting on our porch with two Black men in uniform. I had no idea who the men were. I’d never seen them before. But they were talking about me.
“You will not use my daughter as a token Black female,” my father said sternly. My dad was protective of his daughters, and he didn’t like the idea of my being exploited by the military.
My mother, however, saw the Air Force as an opportunity. Eventually, she wore my father down. Colonel Stewart and Chief Warrant Officer Goode had to pay three separate visits before my dad relented.
“Ok,” he said, “we’ll give it a try.”
Nobody asked me. No one said, “Sandy, do you want to join the Air Force?”
Not that I would have rejected it out of hand. But I knew nothing about the military, and nothing in my past prepared me for what I was getting into. And there were plenty of other young women who seemed far more capable and with far better grades than me.
In fact, though I was studious, I didn’t do so well grade-point-average-wise. The college president, Dr. Martin D. Jenkins, had called me into his office after my first disappointing semester. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Why are you here?” The question cut to my core. Why was I there? I must have answered his query cogently because he ended the meeting by saying, “I’ll see you next semester.”
Dr. Jenkins was on the team approached by the White House in 1957—the year of the Little Rock Nine and the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction—about selecting a Black woman for the Air Force Officer Corps. President Eisenhower had promised progress on racial equality. And the Air Force was the youngest and fastest-growing service branch. When the request for nominations came to Dr. Jenkins’ desk, he, for some reason, suggested me.
Looking back, I’m grateful he did. Our family was proud, but poor. My father mowed lawns and drove a hearse for a living. My mother kept house for a Mrs. Brown, a white woman, for two dollars a day. My parents valued education highly as a path for advancement. But they didn’t have money for college.
My schooling was almost snuffed out at age nine when I started having grand mal seizures — epilepsy. The “colored” public school I attended in West Baltimore in the 1940s couldn’t handle my condition, so I was expelled. Baltimore schools were strictly segregated. There was nowhere for me to go.
My parents petitioned the Oblate Sisters of Providence at St. Francis Academy on East Chase Street to take me. The Oblate Sisters were a Catholic religious order of Black women, the first in America. The nuns accepted me and gave me a great education. Tuition was three-dollars-a-month. My Black neighbors chipped in to pay for it.
Sandra Ortega 1958 (Courtesy Ortega Family)
Sandra Ortega (right) with classmates at the Air Force officer school at Lackland. (Courtesy Ortega Family)
As graduation approached, the sisters encouraged me to write to Morgan State and ask for a scholarship. I did just that. I told them I had no money, but if they would let me go to Morgan, I would make them proud. Two weeks later, I got my acceptance and scholarship letter.
Morgan State had a respected ROTC program—the “Bear Battalion.” But women weren’t a part of it and wouldn’t be until 1972. I never stepped foot in the ROTC office, nor gave a thought to the military.
But, I have to admit, the prospect of an Air Force career was intriguing.
I’ve always been a dreamer, and my earliest dreams involved traveling the world. I recall lying in bed listening to the trains going by just outside my window and imagining myself aboard heading off somewhere.
At Morgan State, I majored in French and wanted to work abroad as an interpreter. But, of course, that was far-fetched.
Young people today should understand just how limited horizons were for African American women in the 1950s. The only realistic aspiration was to teach in Black elementary schools. Almost every other door was closed to me. I remember applying to an airline for a stewardess job and being told there were no positions for women like me.
So, even though you had dreams, you learned to whittle them down because our real-life opportunities were so limited.
Once my father agreed to the Air Force, I came under the keen oversight of Morgan State’s ROTC command. I was assigned a driver who took me back and forth to Fort Holabird in southeast Baltimore for testing. “Make us proud,” Colonel Stewart would say. The tests never had anything to do with the military. I wrote essays, took psychological batteries, and even translated some French. I never had a physical or otherwise trained for what I was about to experience. No one told me anything or gave me instructions.
“We can’t tell you what it will be like because we don’t know,” Colonel Stewart said. “You’re the first to go through it. All we tell you is to make us proud. This has nothing to do with you. This is about opening doors. This is a mission for racial opportunity.” Those were his exact words.
Turns out, they were the best words he could have said. They helped get me through. When things got tough—and they were always tough–I knew that I was on a mission. I knew I had to succeed. It wasn’t about me.
Landing San Antonio, Texas, in 1958 was like landing on Mars. I was used to segregation, but never like this. Signs everywhere declared, “Whites Only,” “Colored Only,” or the more indirect, “We Reserve The Right to Refuse Service to Anyone.” Parks, restrooms, drinking fountains, schools, restaurants, buses, theaters were all segregated. There was even a sign on property owned by the Air Force at Medina Lake.
A shuttle bus picked me up and took me to the Personnel Office at Lackland AFB. A young Airman looked at me, eyes agog, and shuffled some papers.
“We weren’t expecting a you, you,” he said, emphasizing the first “you.”
I knew what he meant. He’d never seen a woman of color on the base before.
He directed me to the OBMC Training Center at the base, where I joined a flight of twenty women, all white. They’d already been in training together, and I was added on. Our eight-week course covered administration, management, leadership, military justice, and general military training.
The other cadets were courteous, but distant. I was in the flight, but not of it. And, I was as alien to them as this whole world was to me.
For example, the women would ask me questions about my skin—“Do you tan?”—and even touch and rub my skin. They’d never been so close to a Black person before and were curious.
Other encounters were less innocuous. The first time I entered a swimming pool, mothers started screaming at their children to get out of the water. White officers, male ones, wouldn’t talk to me. It was taboo. They simply ignored me as if I were not there.
Once a month we had a dance, a social event with men in officer training. We women would sit along one wall, and the guys on another. The music would start, and then the men would rise, walk across the room, and ask the women to dance. I was never asked. I sat there alone. None of the men would dare to be seen touching me or holding my hand.
I never got used to the crushing isolation, insults, and terrible loneliness, but I never showed it. I never complained. If you look at photographs of me from this period, I’m smiling through it all.
My job was to muscle through, to survive it. “You can’t get discharged,” I told myself through gritted teeth. Graduating with a commission was my controlling aim, my only responsibility. That was my mission. Nothing else mattered.
I did make it to graduation, and there was a party. A woman in my flight who lived nearby offered to host the celebration, and the Air Force approved it. The classmate approached me, all smiles, and said, “Sandy, I know you will understand, but you cannot come to my house for the graduation party. My mother said the neighbors would not understand.”
Newspaper clipping (Courtesy Ortega Family)
Sandy being interviewed by Scott Masters’ history class (Courtesy Scott Masters)
I just smiled back and nodded. The words cut and hurt, but I was on a larger mission. I didn’t want to get discharged or earn a reputation of being “hard to get along with.”
A fresh set of butter bars on my shoulders, I headed to my first duty station, Hill Air Force Base in Utah. I’d never heard of Utah.
The head of Materiel Command at Hill AFB was Major General Pearl H. Robey. General Robey had a much-beloved aid, a two-striper named Julio, who was given the job of showing me around. Julio was a Cuban immigrant and didn’t speak too much English. But he was sharp as a tack, and kind, and an outsider, like me. He took me to the base hospital, where I was supposed to report to the commander, a Major Williams from Mississippi.
I entered Major Williams’ office, stood at attention, saluted, reported for duty. Major Williams remained visibly immersed in his paperwork. Without so much as looking up, he told me he didn’t have a job for me. He said I should do downstairs to an office and wait for Airman McDonald to take a lunch break. When he did, I could use McDonald’s chair.
This was the Air Force equivalent of Siberian exile. I was being parked downstairs until Williams could get rid of me.
After a few days of keeping Airman McDonald’s seat warm at lunchtime, I hauled in an unused desk and chair from elsewhere and set about inventing a job for myself.
I made the rounds and talked with people in various departments. I discovered that the hospital’s records were in shambles. So, I appointed myself chief of records and got to work. I began putting everything in order and started writing a history of the hospital, which I thought would be useful. I created a filing system and made sure all new records were filed appropriately.
Three months later, Major Williams, whom I neither seen nor spoken with since meeting him, wrote me an evaluation. In it, Williams referred to me as “shiftless”—a not-so-subtle epithet reserved for Black people. He said I should never have been given a commission and should be discharged immediately.
This was a nightmare. My worst–my only–fear was coming true.
Not knowing what to do, I called Julio, the Airman who had also, I later discovered, been sidelined without a job because of his immigrant status.
Julio responded immediately. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll call you right back.”
Call back, he did. “General Robey and his wife have invited you to have dinner with them,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at six o’clock.”
Sandra and Julio (Courtesy Ortega Family)
How was this possible? An enlisted Airman can just arrange a spontaneous dinner at the home of the base commander? Who was this guy? I wondered.
Sure enough, Julio picked me up and drove me to the base commander’s residence. The general’s wife answered the door and invited me in.
“The general will talk with you later,” she said kindly, “let’s sit down and eat first.” She didn’t normally make dinner, she said, but this night she cooked spaghetti.
After the meal, General Robey leaned back and said, “tell me about yourself.”
I explained everything. Airman McDonald’s desk and what I was trying to do at the hospital with the records. Then I mentioned the scathing evaluation from Major Williams, a man who knew nothing about what I did.
“That evaluation no longer exists,” stated the general plainly. “I’m giving you another job, a proper one.”
The next day began a whole new life for me in the Air Force. I reported to the 4754th Ammunition Squadron and became the Assistant Chief of Personnel and Administration. I was the first and only female in the 400-man squadron.
Everything changed after that. I thrived in the new job and would move on to bigger and better positions. The Air Force, which had seemed almost allergic to my presence, became a home.
Julio became my husband. And he stayed in the Air Force after I got out, retiring as a Chief Master Sergeant. And I stayed with the Air Force also as a civilian, heading various social and family welfare programs, including the Air Force International Spouse Support program in Germany, which I created.
My life has been a series of miracles made possible by the kindness of so many people who appeared at just the right time with just the right opportunity. My parents, my neighbors, the sisters at St. Francis, Colonel Stewart, and General Robey, among many others, including my beloved Julio. My experiences have taught me important lessons: be kind, be good, be inclusive, and don’t give up. Take ownership of your mission, and the mission will take you far.
Watch our VBC Happy Hour with Sandy on our website, at youtu.be/s8NNwKJ8Ja4