RAF MILDENHALL, England --
When she began her Air Force journey, her dad gave her some advice – ‘Keep your eyes and ears open, your mouth shut, and find someone you can trust.’
“I still always think of that, because being part of a team is more than just the role that I fill. It’s not all about me; it’s about the larger team,” said Col. Michelle Estes, 352nd Special Operations Maintenance Group commander. “Yes, I’m a leader that gives intent, provides guidance and makes decisions, but I am also part of a larger team and a follower too. I’m always thinking two levels up in my chain of command and weighing the impacts of my group’s decisions. I cannot emphasize enough, it’s about your team.”
Coming from a military family – one grandfather was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the other in the U.S. Navy, her dad is a retired U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant who did a tour in Vietnam, and her brother also served in the Air Force – Estes said that military life is all she’s ever known. With 23 years active-duty service under her belt, the 352nd SOMXG commander is the first in her family to join as an officer. She is also the first female group commander with the 352nd Special Operations Wing since it stood up at RAF Mildenhall in 2015.
March is Women’s History Month, and as a female in the Air Force, Estes said it’s important we still recognize it each year. She regularly sits on the Women’s History Month panel where she shares experiences and answers questions.
“I love to look back and acknowledge the accomplishments of women who’ve come before us. Because I’m in the field of aviation, the first who comes to mind is Amelia Earhart,” remarked Estes. “Some of the challenges she faced at the time were really non-traditional, because being a pilot was more of a male role. She broke barriers that were unheard of at the time – such as being the first female to solo pilot a plane across the Atlantic – and Earhart ultimately sacrificed her life for taking on those challenges.
“I feel that Women’s History Month needs to be honored because during those times in history when women were told ‘no – you can’t do something,’ there were women who defied incredible odds, took risks, and did it anyway. I think it’s important, especially now, when we’re allowed to do so much more, that those achievements are highlighted and celebrated. We’ve come a long way from the standard answer of ‘no,’ breaking down barriers and surpassing our individual expectations and goals,” explained the commander. “That’s what Amelia Earhart, the first female fighter pilots, and the women who are in combat now all exemplify – but that wasn’t always the case. When they saw the line drawn in the sand indicating a ‘do not cross’ point, they challenged it even when it was a difficult choice.”
Behind a great leader is a great mentor. Estes shared one person who has had a huge impact on her life and military career was her Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructor in high school, retired Senior Master Sgt. Edward Sanders, now 85 years old.
“He is one of the best leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” she said. “He represented all three core values and taught me the true value of commitment. ‘Sarge’ inspired us all to be productive members of society, and to go out and make it better. I’ve never lost touch with him, and to this day I still talk to him once or twice a month – he’s truly intrigued by the impact his students are making, no matter what they’re doing. I can honestly say that I am here today due to Sarge. For that, I’m eternally grateful.”
This is Estes’ second tour at RAF Mildenhall. Before returning as the group commander in 2019 – she was gone for just 11 months – her first role was as the 352nd SOMXG deputy commander from 2015 to 2018.
“It felt great coming back as the group commander, in the role I had supported; I knew most of the people and I have always loved the mission. I truly value how critical the role of deputy is to the group commander, and I’m lucky to have a great deputy in Colonel Mike Campos,” she said.
Balancing both a military and family life can be tough, especially with the responsibilities that come with being a commander. However, Estes’ spouse, Laurie, is prior military and was an aircraft maintenance officer.
“She was in the same career field, so I lean on her for advice and she gives me a different perspective when looking at things; her support is extremely important to me,” Estes said.
Estes said she owes all of her success to her mentors, along with past and present troops.
“Again, I couldn’t do this job without my team -- it’s not about me, but really is a team effort as far as making decisions, and the vision of where we’re headed. I try to include them for the most part, though sometimes I have to make quick decisions,” she said. “Often, I huddle up the team and bounce my thoughts off them, and they’ll give me feedback. That helps me shape the decisions that I make. I include them as much as I can -- like my previous group commanders did with me -- because there are things they might bring up that I hadn’t even considered. Most important thing I do with my team is enable and encourage them to lead and make decisions at their levels. I tell and show them that I support them and have their backs.”
“Open communication with your team is very important. They’ve made me into the leader I am today,” Estes said. “I couldn’t do this mission without them!”