It’s a pretty safe assumption that growing up in rural Oklahoma, the last thing Jean Bennett ever thought she would be was a trail blazer. If you spent much time at the Weatherford Public Library, you may remember her as a petite, soft-spoken woman, who worked among the many books there for more than a decade. What you may not know is that prior to that, for nearly 20 years, she spent time with Uncle Sam in the U.S. Air Force.
In 1974, while Jean was attending college, she fell in love - like many youth do - and was married. It wasn’t long after, though, that she realized she had made a mistake, but not before she became pregnant. After her divorce, and during a recession, she was forced to move back home and look for a means to support she and her daughter.
“I didn’t want to turn around and get married again just to have someone support me,” Jean said. “So my mother of all people approached me and suggested military service as an option.”
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Not long after, Jean joined the Air Force and went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio while her parents watched after her daughter. She headed off to “tech school,” which was just being opened up to women.
As the Vietnam War was coming to a close, only about 3 percent of women made up the ranks of the Air Force.
Jean said that after a battery of what seemed like “aptitude tests” she had hoped for a job in accounting because of her prior experience as a bookkeeper.
“The [Air Force] said, 'No we don’t need you to do that' but I did have one of two choices,” she said. “I could be a jet mechanic or a missile mechanic.”
She said the missile mechanic made more money so she opted for that.
“What they didn’t tell me was I was only the fifth woman to ever go through training to be a missile mechanic,” she said.
When basic training was over, Jean was asked to stay behind so she could get her security clearance.
“At that time, you had to have a top secret clearance because we were talking about Minute Man Missiles and we were right in the middle of the Cold War,” she added.
She said while getting her clearance, the FBI went to where she grew up and asked questions about her to friends and acquaintances.
“It was sort-of funny; one of my mom’s friend asked her if I was in trouble - that the FBI was asking questions about me,” Jean said. “Mom said 'no,' that I was just getting my security clearance.”
Jean said in one instance, a girlfriend of hers who was a police dispatcher, was approached by an agent after work.
“She drew down on him with her revolver and demanded to see his credentials,” Jean added. “Eventually I got it, and my orders too, for more training in Rantoul, Ill.”
After that, she found herself in Cheyenne, Wyo., where she stayed for the next nine years.
“After I got there, a couple of other women arrived; they were in different areas,” she said. “We went into training on the Minute Man Missile III, where we were responsible for removing or replacing the warheads, guidance system and propulsion systems, if needed.”
After almost a decade in Wyoming, Jean decided on a change when she heard they were looking for people to train on ground launch Cruise missiles, which were stationed in Belgium, England and Sicily.
“They sent me to Tuscon for training then on to Sicily - to a NATO base,” she said.
Jean remained there for a year and said she “never worked so hard in her life.”
She returned to Knob Noster, Mo., where she worked at Whiteman Air Force base for a couple of years starting out as Site Supervisor, then Job Control Supervisor and eventually ran the Missile Mechanical shop.
“Testing went on literally all of the time,” Jean said. “If you had anything less than 97 or 98 percent alert rating, you were in trouble.”
After Whiteman she got word they were looking for people to do on-site inspections in Russia.
“President [Ronald] Reagan had signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and since I had been in Sicily I said ‘I’ll go,’” she recalled.
She said the staging area for traveling to the Soviet Union was either out of Germany or Japan, depending on where in Russia they were traveling.
“We would go to various missile bases in Russia - and vice versa - and we would watch them destroy them by either blowing them up or cutting them into pieces,” Jean said.
Jean said her duties weren’t so much mentally demanding but that it more than made up for it in physicality.
“I guess I was just too dumb to know any better so I kept going,” she said. “I thought, ‘They have given me this job, I have a child to support - no matter what, I need to do this.’”
She said like most new jobs where you often have to prove yourself, in a male dominated area...well, “let’s just say it got old after a while,” she said.
She said, often times, if a general visited the base, she was “Exhibit A” to show off. That the base had a female on board and she was doing the job.
Jean said once she made Tech Sergeant she became “Sergeant Mom.”
“I had some of the guys come to me with a variety of problems...it was easier for some of them to come to a ‘mom-type’ figure,” she added.
Jean left the Air Force in 1993 as a Senior Master Sergeant.
“I got to work with some really good people and I miss some them, even today,” she said. “When I retired, I think I was the only woman Senior Master Sergeant in my field. For years, I was the highest ranking woman that worked on missiles because I was one of the first.”
One of her fondest memories was when she was working in Sicily.
“Most women didn’t drive. One day, I was driving a truck around the town square of a little community and the men were throwing flowers at me," she recalled. “I drove around it again and they did it again."
She said she "didn’t live that down for a month,” speaking of her comrades teasing her.
She said the Russians weren’t much better. The men just weren’t used to seeing a woman in that capacity and brought her flowers routinely.
On one of her last missions, Jean told of the dismantlement of a Russian missile.
“We placed stickers on the missiles to verify they were indeed the correct missiles to destroy,” Bennett said. “Since we had to wait until the next day to blow them up, we had to go out in the morning and check they were the same ones.”
She said one of the missile was removed from the destruction site, and taken by truck and airplane to the Smithsonian in Washington. The man from the famous institution verified each step by looking at the sticker.
“It was the training missile he took which remains on permanent display,” she said. “My sticker is still on it."
When she left the Air Force, Jean went back to college in Denton, where she received her Masters in Information Technology. Afterward, she took a job at the Weatherford Public Library and has since retired.