ARC Athena leaps from the minds of Airmen

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jeffrey Grossi
  • 911th Airlift Wing

In one Greek myth, after Zeus suffered a headache, his forehead split open and Athena – the goddess of warfare, wisdom, and strategy – leapt out and into being. Similarly, the Air Reserve Component’s version of Athena was conceived in, and sprang from, the minds of Airmen after experiencing some headaches of their own.

Although most are familiar with Athena as a deity of the ancient world, within the Department of the Air Force, Athenas are grass-roots efforts composed of volunteers who work towards change. They provide leadership, education, representation and advocacy through the ARC component.

Aligning with the Women’s Initiative Team (WIT) and the Women’s Peace and Security Act of 2017 — which principles the protection of human rights and the incorporation of a gender perspective – the event aims to serve the Department of the Air Force and the Department of Defense by generating awareness, education and empowerment in order to increase lethality and readiness.

According to Lt. Gen. John P. Healy, the chief of the Air Force Reserve and commander of AFRC, “Developing a lethal, ready force calls for enacting policies that remove barriers to effective service for everyone. Women represent more than a quarter of the Air Force Reserve, and our overall readiness is strongly influenced by their readiness.”

ARC Athena is the fifth wave of charges following Air Combat Command’s Sword Athena, Air Materiel Command’s Reach Athena, Air Force Special Operations Command's Dagger Athena and Air Education and Training Command’s Torch Athena. These advocacy groups have mustered individually since Sword Athena’s inaugural event in August of 2020. They aim to identify, tackle and propose solutions to female and family centric barriers to military service. From championing the development of new hair regulations, kicking down barriers for Airmen in maternity statuses and empowering female Airmen in their careers as early as their first days of technical training, the strategies revealed by Athenas have led to successful reforms.

Where these events have excelled at making impactful change relative to active service, there were items pertaining to the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command that persisted under the radar. That is, until one Steel Airman hailing from Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station began asking the right questions in the right places.

“ARC Athena started with one person in my view – Senior Master Sgt. Rebecca Schatzman,” said Maj. Angela Romero, the executive officer of the New Mexico National Guard Adjutant General and an ARC Athena co-lead. “She is an absolute superhero. Her passion and commitment are what inspired me to join this initiative.”

Along with serving as the 911th Operations Support Squadron’s senior enlisted leader, Schatzman is an ARC Athena co-lead. Previously, she served in the Air Force as an aviation resource manager, C-130 flight engineer, and cross-trained as a loadmaster when the 911th Airlift Wing transitioned to the C-17 Globemaster III. She also worked as an aircraft dispatcher in the civilian sector. After all those years and experiences as a career enlisted aviator, Schatzman attended an SEL course in February of 2022 and engaged her class in a conversation about restrictions within her career field.

“There was a height waiver,” said Schatzman. “If you were under 64 inches, you either required a waiver or you were not allowed to serve as a CEA, which was based off 1970s data. 47 percent of females were being eliminated because they were not 64 inches tall, which is a huge gap.”

The topic of height restrictions opened a floodgate of inequities and missed opportunities recognized by the 23-year Air Force veteran. And from those murky floodwaters, the basis of a new Athena sprouted.

“We had brought up the barriers for females and their propensity to serve at that point,” said Schatzman. “So I listed-off a whole bunch and the class listened. I was very lucky because Chief Fowler, my MAJCOM functional, was the champion of this class. Each senior leader's course has a chief there as a champion. And I was just lucky it happened to be him.”

Chief Master Sgt. Frederick Fowler, CEA functional manager for AFRC and the third co-lead of ARC Athena, pulled Schatzman aside after the course. Schatzman said he was shocked by the list of issues discussed. Continuing the conversation, the two concluded these concerns reached across the Reserve and did not belong to just one Air Force specialty code.

“That was just one interface of a great leader listening," said Schatzman. “He was the first piece in all of this.”

The next piece came the following day when Schatzman received a brief from members of WIT who talked about all the resources available to active-duty Airmen.

“I was like, ‘Wow, they have a ton of resources, why don’t we have that on the Reserve side?’” said Schatzman. “So, when I came home from that course I wrote a background paper.”

A few weeks later, Schatzman was able to sync up with Fowler, this time armed with her ideas written down in bullet format. These bullets aimed to inspire Reserve Citizen Airmen through new policies, enable women to serve with fewer impediments to readiness, create advocacy for recognizing and removing barriers to service, and forge a Reserve more receptive and adaptive to women.

“The next thing you know, he [Fowler] is briefing it at the Aircrew Management Executive Council, and the Air National Guard symposium,” said Schatzman.

After hearing Reserve Citizen Airmen shared in female-centric recruitment, readiness and retention difficulties while serving in a capacity outside of active duty, the ANG was ready to join forces with their reservist counterparts – something new to Athena initiatives.

“Unique to ARC Athena is the combining of efforts from AFRC and ANG to tackle issues and barriers unique to Airmen who serve in a capacity that is ‘other,’” said Schatzman. “The Guard and the Reserve tasks are one. So we combined. You know, strength in numbers.”

One benefit of teaming up is the broadening of ARC Athena’s resource pool, which can now secure funds at the federal and state levels. And more funding means more manpower and visibility. With a solid foundation in place, co-leads Schatzman, Fowler and Romero began drafting lines of effort and seeking volunteers in December 2022. When called upon, Airmen answered.

“We oversee nine line-of-effort teams which consist of eight to 15 volunteers throughout the Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard from the rank of senior airman to lieutenant colonel,” said Schatzman. “As a co-lead, I run anything when it comes to ARC Athena and oversee nearly 30 Airmen located in Pittsburgh alone – closer to 100 if we include all the units that are involved. They're from all over the place. We have volunteers from Lakenheath that are on our teams, so we have to manage that and get everybody's schedules in line.”

Volunteers were separated into nine research groups focusing on the LOEs such as: providing childcare programs, policies and entitlements; pregnancy discrimination and maternal biases; aircraft limitations and sanitation; gear and uniform limitations; countering sexual assault and harassment; implementing lactation rooms, in vitro fertilization policies, and creating milk storage and shipping capabilities; maternal fitness and recovery; specialized mental healthcare programs; and implementing an Exceptional Family Member Program which provides comprehensive and coordinated support to families with special needs.

Schatzman says it doesn't matter how long someone serves. “Whether it's somebody that serves 200 days, 20 days, or two days a year everybody's treated the same. Everybody should have access to the same resources.”

More than a year after those initial discussions, planning and late nights at the office, ARC Athena is coming to fruition in Pittsburgh. The two-day event will be held in April and will allow Airmen to meet with leaders from across the DAF to advocate for policy change and promote command and leadership education.

“It will connect problem solvers and inspire action," said Romero. “It will fuel this effort to pay forward what those that came before us did for us. The discussions I had since joining this effort have opened my eyes to my own biases and many of the things I just muscled through instead of trying to change. I now have two daughters serving in the Air National Guard and I want their experience and the experiences of all women to be different from many of my own. I think about all the women who have served before me and how different my experience has been because of their courage and diligence.”

Romero hopes ARC Athena urges others to reflect on their own efforts from the highest echelons of leadership to the Air Force’s newest recruits. Change, it seems, doesn't need to start at the very top.

“We want to have base-wide representation, and open avenues for change," said Schatzman. “A lot of these issues, people don't really want to stand up and discuss because they're pretty sensitive. So there are Airmen who are kind of suffering in silence. But with ARC Athena, we’ll say them together.”

Although the Air Force Reserve has demonstrated combat proven readiness for decades, ARC Athena is finding new ways to apply warfare, wisdom and strategy to transform for the future and find new ways to remove barriers for women to serve.

“Women have served with distinction in the Air Force Reserve for 75 years, overcoming barriers and navigating obstacles that often made it difficult for them to do their jobs," Healy said. “I'm proud of the work the ARC Athena team is doing to remove the hurdles to readiness that our dedicated female Reserve Citizen Airmen have faced for so many years.”