Paula Marie Kirkbride
Sergeant – US Air Force; Eielson AFB, Alaska; and
1st Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, Florida
Middle East and Persian Gulf Involvements (1983-1990)
Paula Marie Kirkbride’s story is one that embodies the virtues of American
resilience in the military. Although not traditional, it is a story that in many ways is representative of the services and sacrifices the young men and women who enlist make in protecting and maintaining our nation’s sovereignty.
Born in Havelock, North Carolina, and raised for the most part close to a military base in the same state, the military played a large role in Kirkbride’s life well before she enlisted in the Air Force. Her father was a marine during the Vietnam War, her stepfather served in the military during World War II and the Vietnam War, her uncle served in the Navy, and another uncle served in the Coastguard. After going to East Carolina University for a semester with no major but still receiving all A’s, Kirkbride decided she wanted more from life and saw opportunity in the Air Force. She enlisted in the Air Force at the young age of nineteen under the guidance of her father, who believed that the Air Force would offer her the most rewarding experience and would be the most welcoming environment for a woman. She enlisted and soon enough was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas during the summer of 1983 for basic training.
At Lackland AFB, Kirkbride found herself in a challenging as well as highly educational environment, the foundation of what would later facilitate her success in the Air Force. She was taught about the schematics of planes, American history and the history of the Air Force, how to handle and shoot an M16 rifle properly, and was tested about once a week in the classroom on her abstract material as well as her marksmanship in the field. The weather was always irritating, and as Kirkbride said, “It’s always hot… very hot in Texas.” Kirkbride recalled that in general, different units were segregated based on genders. She also recalled that she didn’t believe there was any discrimination to women during her basic training experience, an experience that she later acknowledged to have been very thorough and effective in preparing her for her first assignment in Alaska. After completing her general training at Lackland, she had yet to complete more training in her self-selected specialty; corrosion control. Corrosion control is the study of metallurgy on an aircraft; how to keep them from rusting, how to treat rusting planes, how to paint them properly so that the metal retains its health, etc. When Kirkbride heard about this specialty in the Air Force, all she remembered thinking was “This is kind of cool!”; she set out to Sheppard Air Force Base after basic training for the additional training that would prepare her to finally set out for her first assignment at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
Upon landing in Alaska, Kirkbride had a lot on her mind. At the rank of Airman, she was not thrilled to be sent to a base that was as frigid, as dark, or as secluded as Eielson was. It was still her first two year rotation officially in the Air Force, and above all else, she was excited. Her daily duty essentially consisted of inspecting the planes, “You have a book, and it tells you where you’re supposed to check, what you’re supposed to look for, things like that, and you write it all down.” Kirkbride and her unit were also responsible for mixing, priming, and applying paints to the aircrafts, a skill that came to her naturally that she thought was fun. With not a lot a daylight during the winter (roughly one hour), Kirkbride recalled that there were few things to do for entertainment at the base. She recalled that she and some of the other women rented a three-wheeler to go camping in the thirty below zero tundra, and that her and her friends would go offbase to clubs and go dancing. “You’d just either do that stuff or you’d do nothing.” In terms of any differences in her service compared to her male counterparts, Kirkbride was proud to say that she felt there were none. Whatever aircraft came in for maintenance, she and her fellow airmen would work as equals. Leaving Alaska in 1985, Kirkbride had ascended to the rank of E3 and had two years of valuable experience under her belt. She was then headed for her second deployment; Hurlburt Field Air Force Base, Florida.
Hurlburt Field was a place that changed Kirkbride’s life in ways that she didn’t see coming. While her initial duties were essentially the same as they had been in Alaska, Kirkbride began noticing she had abnormal rashes on her skin and she couldn’t identify the cause. In 1986, the base’s flight surgeon had discovered after close examination and testing that her body was having a reaction to her exposure to black neoprene, isocyanates, and some other chemicals involved in painting and protecting aircrafts from wear. Although she was relatively protected and was wearing masks and gloves while doing her work, Kirkbride’s overseers immediately reassigned her to be an administrative specialist. Told that she could possibly have serious health problems later in life, Kirkbride was still optimistic about her role in the service and continued to be an active member at her base.
With her new job in administration, she was exposed to more of the news and politics surrounding the United State’s role in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East at the time. She recalled, “I began to have a lot more knowledge, and that’s when it became really apparent that, you know, this is not going to be good…a lot of people were nervous.” Despite the turbulence concerning her health as well as the current events, Kirkbride also met her future husband, a special operations airman, at Hurlburt Field. She was given honorable discharge from the Air Force in Florida, April 2nd, 1990 due to her health issues, which had begun to become more pronounced.
After having a bit of trouble finding work, Kirkbride became successful in the field of high-tech recruiting. She received a job as an administrator for an executive search firm that worked in high tech, a career that interested and taught her a lot about the then booming industry of technology. Working in the same field as her husband, the two were successful enough to establish their own firm and hire their own employees. Unfortunately, as the years passed Kirkbride’s health problems have become more and more prominent, but she continues to exhibit her resilient nature in her character through her actions and through the way she thinks of others. Concerning the VA, Kirkbride suggests that for other veterans seeking medical help, the hoops that they have to go through are too much, and that by shortening the amount of paperwork that needs to be filled out as well as increasing the amount of care and attendants at each VA location, veterans in need can get the help they deserve. She also advocates for either more care for the men’s or an integration of both male and female VA departments due to the fact that there’s a much higher volume of male veterans with medical issues that need medical attention.
Although she was exposed to harmful chemicals, Kirkbride says she regrets none of her choices in life. Concerning the Air Force, she stated “If anything, I wish I would’ve stayed longer.” She believes that all young men and women should serve in the military in some form because of the importance of not taking our safety and freedom for granted and because of the fact that she believes it is a positive and life altering commitment. Concerning her fellow service members, she added “We’re fortunate we’re born in this country…people aren’t serving in the military to get rich. People aren’t serving in the military to be president, you know.
They’re doing it out of a sense of service, and an appreciation of the freedom that we all take for granted.” It’s a sentiment that resonates deeply with the ideals of other service members and veterans across the nation, and one that inspires and encourages the proud tradition to be carried on to future generations.
Interview by Joshua Dov Epstein on September 11, 2015