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Meet Stayce Harris, the first black woman to become an Air Force lieutenant general

The Air Force brat now wears three stars

Most Undefeated stampThis summer, Stayce Harris, a major general at the time, was enjoying her work as the head of the Air Force Reserve’s 22nd Air Force at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. She commanded more than 15,000 citizen airmen, 105 aircraft and missions including a specialized hurricane hunter, fire suppression and aerial spraying.

She was cool, but she knew there was more to her calling. She then learned that President Barack Obama nominated her to be promoted to lieutenant general and become the assistant vice chief of staff and director of the air staff for the U.S. Air Force.

The Senate confirmed the nomination, making her the first black woman to achieve the rank of lieutenant general for the Air Force. “I am beyond where I ever imagined I would be in life,” Harris said. “I pinch myself every single day. This opportunity, for me being on active duty for eight years then becoming an Air Force reservist for 26 years and now coming back on active duty is something that no one ever imagined, especially me, because this is a brand-new opportunity for the Air Force Reserve. It’s the first time that a reservist has held the rank of three-star lieutenant general other than the chief of the Air Force Reserve. I don’t take that lightly and I’m very honored and incredibly humbled to be able to serve in this role, and I want to do well so that we can pay it forward for others.”

Harris earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California in industrial and systems engineering, and got her master’s degree in aviation management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In her 34-year career, she’s earned many awards and boasts more than 2,500 military aircraft hours.

Harris was inspired by her father to go into the military.

“I am an Air Force brat, so I was born into the Air Force. I’ve been in the Air Force all my life. But as we traveled around with my father, I knew he was in the Air Force, but I didn’t know exactly what he did. But I was thrilled by the fact that we got to move around to what I thought was a new exotic location every two years,” Harris said.

She started junior ROTC in high school.

“I really found out what it is to, No. 1, be a good citizen because that’s what junior ROTC programs are really about. But they also expose you to the Air Force,” she said. “I knew that I had that propensity to serve my nation, to be part of something greater than myself and that’s why I decided to join.”

Harris says that the hardest part of the journey has been not having her parents with her. Her mother, a banker, was also the family disciplinarian, and she says she was a daddy’s girl.

“I lost my mother in college and then my father was with me until 2002, so he was able to know that I had made colonel in the Air Force. He was able to be with me when I took squadron command, which was great. And my father was a person who knew no strangers, and so even to this day people are thinking, ‘Clyde must be smiling down because he was so much fun to be with and he would be so proud.’ I’m sure he and my mother are both smiling.”

Harris admired her father’s resilience and said she gets her strength and fortitude from her mother. Her parents were from North Carolina. She enjoys Southern food, which reminds her of her father, who was the cook in the family.

The best piece of advice Harris remembers came from ABC anchor Robin Roberts.

“I always tell people to find your passion and follow your passion with all of your drive and abandon, but most importantly, realize that God’s delays are not his denials. I went to a Black Enterprise women’s summit one year and [Robin Roberts] was the speaker. When she said that, it just resonated with me so well and I have used it in almost every single speech that I’ve given ever since,” Harris said. “I always try to give her credit for it, but it really means that in pursuing your goals, there may be stumbling blocks. I call it turbulence because I’m a pilot. There’s turbulence out there, but those stumbling blocks, in my opinion, really serve as building blocks to get you where you want to go. So don’t be deterred if there are delays in you achieving your goal. I think you become stronger for it.

“What I enjoy so much about the Air Force is that before I entered, because there were delays in my going to pilot training. I actually had nine months right after graduation from college where I was off until I was going to go on active duty, and so I was able to work for Hughes Aircraft. I was hired as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft, and even though the salary that I was being paid then was more than I would ever make as a second lieutenant, when I looked around Hughes Aircraft and I thought in my mind, ‘I don’t think I could ever be CEO of Hughes Aircraft.’ Just the climate and the culture didn’t seem possible.”

Harris said people have to realize their limits and boundaries. She’s figured hers out. Every year, for instance, she attends a jazz festival in the Netherlands: the North Sea Jazz Festival.

“There’s about 30 of us that travel over from the U.S. and around the globe, actually,” Harris said. “I try to take time for me, and when I do that, it’s usually traveling to Los Angeles to visit my friends, get my Pacific Ocean fix or travel around the world, which I still enjoy.”

Harris never imagined how far she’d go in the Air Force, and looks at it as an opportunity to inspire others.

“Just to be able to take care of all our airmen of our Air Force and have that be front and center on your mind every single day has been just an absolute thrill and an honor. I’ve learned that in the heart of me, and I think I’ve always known this forever, is that I care deeply for others and I care deeply for airmen. That’s always been my goal. If I can wake up in the morning and know that I’ve done right by taking care of our airmen, I’m good, because there’s moms and dads and sisters and brothers and friends that are counting on you to take care of their son or daughter or brother or sister when they enter the Air Force, and I’ve gotten enough experience that I should know how to or have the tools to along with the chief of staff, of course, and the secretary of the Air Force. That’s our goal, … to make sure we take care of our airmen that have chosen to serve our nation and protect and defend.”

Harris said airmen often refer to themselves as “the oxygen of the joint force because we are air, space and cyberspace. I mean when you think of that role that the Air Force has in defense of our nation, it’s immense and it’s a big responsibility, but it’s what I love to do. I love to take care of our airmen. I love to mentor. I love to just listen to airmen. Being a person who lives by themselves, I don’t hear a lot of chatter, especially when I’m by myself, so it’s so much fun to be able to just listen to airmen and their concerns. As you grow in responsibilities, you’re able to help them even more.”

Why Harris became a pilot

“It really was an instructor in college that said, ‘Why don’t you compete to be a pilot?’ Basically, the conversation kind of went, ‘Have you ever thought about flying?’ Of course, I go, ‘I’ve been flying all my life. I’ve been flying since I was the age of 2,’ because I never even envisioned they were talking about becoming a pilot. They said, ‘No, how about being a pilot?’ I thought to myself, ‘Why not? Why not become a pilot?’ From that moment on, I said, ‘Why be a passenger, when you can fly the plane to all the destinations?’ Then two months before I went to pilot training, I was able to meet the Tuskegee Airmen, and so when you talk about the inspiration of your life, for me, it has been the Tuskegee Airmen.”

When times were challenging for Harris during pilot training, she reflected on those who paved the way.

“The Tuskegee Airmen worked too hard for someone who looks like me to be here. I will persevere,” she said. “Having them as my wind beneath my wings and even though I didn’t have to call and talk to them, just that inspiration knowing that two months prior I had just met them, that inspiration really inspired me to succeed and make it through pilot training. They have been a part of my career ever since. They have been to every command ceremony when I’ve taken command and when I’ve relinquished command. They have pinned the rank on my shoulders ever since I made colonel.”

If Harris could give advice to her 18-year-old self, it would be to follow her passion and get a good occupation.

“Get something that you enjoy, because the things that you think are fun now that you’re able to do are going to be so much better when you actually have a job and your own money. It’s so much better as a grown-up. I think that’s what I’ve learned, because we’ve all been young,” she said. “When I was thinking through this, I’m glad you helped me to it, but it basically was just do the right thing when you’re young, because life is better as an adult when you’ve established yourself in a career contributing to society. There’s still fun to be had.

“I never thought that I would be a general officer in the United States Air Force, but I knew that that opportunity was there because I had visualized women before me that had served in that role: Marcelite Harris and Hazel Johnson. So many people of color and females that had become general officers that I knew that the Air Force was more embracing of diversity and advancement for those that work hard to do the job.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.