By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — One town resident is flying higher, and shouldering more, than she ever has before.
New York Air National Guard Col. Denise Donnell recently took control of the 105th Airlift Wing in Newburgh. She previously served as the vice-wing commander, and will be the first woman to take on the role as commander.
Though she lives Clifton Park now, Donnell, whose father was a Navy doctor and mother a nurse, was born in California and has lived all around the world. Donnell said that she was up for anything during college, but seriously started to give flying some consideration during her sophomore year. She received a few flying lessons from her father. She then spent nine years in the Navy from 1993 until 2002, deployed in the Persian Gulf.
Then, in 2002, Donnell decided that the National Guard would be more conducive to family life, and came to New York.
But her journey is far from over. Now, as the wing commander, Donnell is responsible for over 1,300 airmen and civilians in the wing. Part of her job, she said, is making sure that everyone in the wing is working toward the same goals, and has the same priorities. The new role as commander, she said, forces her to work outside of her comfort zone.
“It’s only daunting because it’s so humbling,” she said.
One of the most difficult parts of the job, Donnell said, is knowing that she is responsible for people who are going into harm’s way. The job of the National Guard is rewarding, Donnell said, but also dangerous, and part of her job is to make sure she is preparing the men and women under her command for what they will face in the field.
“This is not an ordinary job,” Donnell added. “You’re not in it for the money. You’re not in it for the glory.”
Combat roles opened to women in the ’90s, around the same time Donnell began her career in the Navy. It was never her goal to be a trailblazer, she said. Instead, she was looking for opportunities that would challenge her.
The combined results of her experiences and abilities is what brought her to the position of wing commander, she said. Though she acknowledged that becoming the first female commander is significant, she is looking forward to the time where being a woman commander will not come as a surprise, or be a rarity.
That time, Donnell said, seems to be getting closer. Throughout her career, Donnell said that she has experienced a sense of equality, and that her fellow service men and women see a good pilot and leader first.
“I’ve never felt that being a woman has hindered me,” she said.
Her goal in going forward as commander, she said, is to be a good role model for young women, but also for young men. Serving in the military, she said, is strictly about the team, not about individuals.
“It really is amazing, that sense of doing something bigger than yourself,” Donnell said. “Plus, flying is just cool.”