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2013 Keynote Speaker
THE MAKING OF A WARRIOR
BY ALFREDA SCHMIDT
MEMBER, LANSING VETERANS DAY COMMISSION
Tracy Onufer is coming home. With few exceptions, she has been away from Lansing since the fall of 1991. Since she's been gone, she has accumulated:
- A bachelor's degree
- Two master's degrees
- More than 1,000 combat flying hours in Air Force Special Operations Command's deadliest plane, the AC-130 gunship
- A Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism
- A promotion to Lieutenant Colonel two years ahead of her peers
- Twenty-one months as commander of a gunship squadron, only the second woman ever
- Recognition by Marie Claire magazine as Top Military Commander, one of 16 Women on Top awards given in 2011
Whenever I look at my photos of Tracy Onufer in her Air Force uniform, I think back to the young girl I watched grow up here in Lansing. It was my pleasure to meet Tracy soon after her sixth birthday. I was the newly-elected city councilmember for the Second Ward, and Tracy's dad was part of the council staff. We became friends.
When she began Kindergarten at Henry North Elementary School in September 1978, Tracy had no idea where life would take her. No one in her family would have predicted that she would follow her paternal grandfather and her father into the Air Force. Even though she was born in the base hospital at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Tracy showed no interest in the wild blue yonder.
She lived with her parents and younger sister in an apartment off East Edgewood Boulevard, easy walking distance to North School. There, Tracy learned American Sign Language to talk with the school's many hearing-impaired youngsters. I think Tracy learned a special kind of compassion at North School, seeing every day the challenges faced by the physically or health impaired children taught by the special education staff.
Within two years, the Onufer family moved a few blocks west to a house on Rosedale Road, a quiet street good for roller skating. Tracy had lots of experiences familiar to Lansing kids: sledding on the big hill at Waverly Golf Course; roller skating at Edru in Holt; Small Animals Day at MSU; family trips to Potter Park Zoo, Cedar Point, Kings Island and Great America. There were even family trips to see Grandma Onufer in Tampa, which meant fun days at Busch Gardens and DisneyWorld.
Tracy earned good grades but there was more to school than classwork and homework. One highlight was Fourth Grade Camp at the Ebersole Environmental Center. Tracy told me her best friend broke her leg on a hike to Devil's Soup Bowl in Yankee Springs. Despite this misfortune, Tracy enjoyed her camp experience, especially singing around the campfire.
I was honored to be the guest speaker at the commencement ceremony for Tracy's class. If you have ever seen 11- and 12-year-olds all dressed up and doing their best to act grown up, you know what a special night that was.
Tracy moved on to Gardner Middle School and quickly established herself as a serious student thinking ahead to college. Her light shone brightest, however, when she got to Everett High School. In her freshman year, she read a survey that named chemical engineering as the college major with the highest average salary for graduates. From that point on, Tracy was driven to excel in her chemistry and math classes. She took the most rigorous college prep courses and earned straight A's for the rest of her high school career. She earned academic letters all four years. The final standings showed her ranked sixth in her class of 300 with a 3.935 GPA.
For most people, summer is a time for vacations and travel. In late June 1989, Tracy attended the High School Engineering Institute at Michigan State. The following summer, she travelled to Houghton, where she participated in two engineering workshops at Michigan Technological University.
Tracy's drive and ambition to earn top grades led to her being voted Most Likely to Succeed in the Everett Class of 1991. Along the way, she was one of the first two Everett students to take three advanced placement classes and pass all three national tests for college credits. She was the first Lansing schools student to complete Docent training at Potter Park Zoo. She was co-editor of the Everett yearbook for her Class of '91.
Tracy ran track and cross-country for the Vikings, discovering a wonderful form of exercise that has remained a part of her life. Over the past several years, Tracy has run in 20 half-marathons all over the country, from DisneyWorld to Seattle.
The University of Michigan accepted Tracy's application to the College of Engineering. The academics for chemical engineering students were a serious challenge for Tracy. But she finished strong, making the Dean's List in her final term. With the head start of A.P. credits, and by taking a couple summer term classes, Tracy graduated in four years. Her first summer, she clerked at L&L Shop-Rite. Her second summer, she worked at Cedar Point. After that, she stayed on campus in Ann Arbor to focus on the rigors of one of the toughest majors in the halls of Academe.
After graduation, Tracy worked part-time while applying for engineering jobs. Gradually, she came to a realization, which changed the course of her life. As she explained to her parents, "I can't see myself as a chemical engineer. I don't want to work in the oil industry."
Mom and Dad were stunned.
Tracy quickly followed with, "I've been talking to an Air Force recruiter. I've taken the officer aptitude test and the aviation aptitude test. He said I can go through officer training school, then get my wings after navigator school."
Mom and Dad were delighted.
Tracy raised her right hand and swore her oath on June 24, 1996, at the military induction center on Jolly Road. From there, she went to Maxwell Air Force Base, near Montgomery, Alabama, for OTS. Mom and Dad attended her graduation ceremony on October 4. A few days later, I received an invitation. Tracy was on leave, visiting her Michigan friends. Mom and Dad invited a few people to a dinner party at a restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor.
Second Lieutenant Onufer told OTS stories over dinner, then explained that her next leg of training would be navigator school at Pensacola Naval Air Station. From there, she would go to her first duty base, where she would receive specialized training aboard the aircraft she would be flying during her career.
Tracy was the Distinguished Graduate of her navigator class. Dad took photos while Mom pinned on Tracy's wings during the ceremony in the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. Tracy's next move was to Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The headquarters base of Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt would be Tracy's home for the next ten years.
As she told me later, Tracy got her dream job. She trained as an Electronic Warfare Officer on the AC-130U "Spooky" gunship. The EWO controls defensive systems aboard the plane, using flares and chaff to defeat enemy missiles, and telling the pilot how to avoid ground-based anti-aircraft artillery. I asked her if she was scared of flying in combat. She said she had confidence in her training, and that she would know what to do in a life-or-death situation.
Tracy finished her training and became a full-fledged EWO. In her squadron, she was affectionately known as the SHEWO.
Then came 9/11.
Details remain classified, but in 2002, Tracy began the first of many two- or four-month deployments to combat areas. Supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, gunship crews were some of the most heavily deployed troops in the Air Force for several years.
Tracy moved up through the ranks, earned a master's degree in Management while at Hurlburt, and earned another master's degree in Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Montery, California. Her area of emphasis was Terrorist Operations and Financing. Next, she was assigned to a special operations wing at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. There, she commanded the 16th Special Operations Squadron, which flies the AC-130H "Spectre" gunship.
Each year, Marie Claire magazine recognizes a few women under age 40 who are leaders in their chosen fields. In October 2011, Tracy flew to New York City for the Women on Top Awards ceremony, where she was named Top Military Commander. If you google "Women on Top 2011," you will find the link to the magazine article about the awards. Tracy sat with actress Katie Holmes and magazine editor-in-chief Joanna Coles at the awards luncheon. Fashion editor Nina Garcia asked to have her picture taken with Tracy.
Now Tracy is assigned to the United States Special Operations Command, which sent her to the National Counterterrorism Center in northern Virginia as a liaison officer.
I am delighted, after three years of trying, to have Tracy tell her story as our guest speaker at the Lansing Veterans Day Ceremony on November 9.
Welcome home, my friend!