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Breaking Barriers: Charleston defenders achieve pair of firsts

Senior Airman Sydney Lewandowski and Senior Airman Destiny Cooper train at the firing range at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. March 7, 2021. Training is an integral part of mission readiness and combat efficancy. Lewandowski is a Phoenix Raven and Cooper is a combat arms instructor and both are assigned to the 315th Security Forces Squadron.

Senior Airman Sydney Lewandowski (left) and Senior Airman Destiny Cooper (right) stand together for a portrait at the firing range at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina March 7, 2021. Lewandowski is a Phoenix Raven and Cooper is a combat arms instructor and both are assigned to the 315th Security Forces Squadron. (Senior Airman William Brugge)

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. --

Two Airmen from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, achieved major Air Force milestones as Reservists at the 315th Airlift Wing.

Senior Airman Sydney Lewandowski became the wing’s first female security forces Phoenix Raven, and Senior Airman Destiny Cooper became the wing’s first female security forces combat arms instructor.

Lewandowski graduated from her training course in March, and according to her, being first is always a top priority.

“One of my main drives for becoming a Phoenix Raven was being the first female from our base to accomplish it,” said Lewandowski, who serves with the 315th Security Forces Squadron. “I always wanted to be the tough girl, I always want to be the alpha.”

Lewandowski started her Air Force journey in December 2018 and balances being a student at the College of Charleston, as well as a part-time job, on top of her Air Force Reserve commitment. 

Nearly two years into her Reserve career as a security forces member with the wing, Lewandowski decided that she would embark on the challenge of becoming the first female Phoenix Raven from the 315th.

The Phoenix Raven program, implemented in 1997, consists of teams of specially trained security forces personnel dedicated to providing security for Air Mobility Command aircraft transiting high terrorist and criminal threat areas.

Lewandowski said she always likes to be the toughest person in the room and that the physical and mental challenges of becoming a Phoenix Raven didn’t deter her in the slightest from pursuing the challenge.

“Going into the training, I thought that it was going to be more physically demanding than mentally demanding,” said Lewandowski. “While it turned out to be physically demanding, it turned out to challenge me much more mentally than I was prepared for.”

While Lewandowski said she still has to overcome the stigmas around the fact that she is a woman and a member of security forces in the Reserve, it hasn’t stopped her in the slightest toward reaching her true potential.

“Most people don’t know what to say when they find out that I’m a female and in security forces,” said Lewandowski. “They really don’t know what to say when they find out that I am a Raven and what the Ravens do.”

Cooper shared a similar path as Lewandowski in terms of career field. Cooper joined the Air Force Reserve in August 2017 and decided that after being trained as a security forces specialist, she would pursue becoming the first female combat arms instructor with the wing.

Cooper, who graduated from the combat arms instructor course in July 2020, said she believes all things are possible with a positive mental attitude.

“No one on the civilian side believes me when I tell them that I am a weapons instructor in the Air Force,” said Cooper, who also serves with the 315th Security Forces Squadron. “When they see a small-statured woman, they automatically disqualify me for that type of position.”

Cooper, who is also currently a college student, would like to become an officer in the future. She said that she didn’t let the stigma of being a woman and combat arms instructor stop her efforts of pursuing the career field.

“The biggest obstacles to overcome were the mental obstacles and stigmas placed around the job and being the first female at the base to do this, so there is a big standard,” said Cooper. “All eyes were on me and I knew I couldn’t mess up, so I put out max effort and graduated as a distinguished graduate.”

Cooper said her impact was felt immediately across her squadron, and she knew that she had set the bar high for those to come after her.    

“We now have another female coming over to combat arms, and she told me that I was one of the reasons she pursued the career field,” said Cooper. “It was a wakeup call, but also motivating that other people are watching what I’m doing and that it is motivating them to step out of their comfort zones and achieve whatever they want to achieve.”

Lewandowski and Cooper both said they never allowed social norms or stigmas to stop them from carrying out their goals in the Air Force.

“I don’t think you can ever let a stigma or perception stop you from pursuing your dreams,” said Lewandowski. “You can accomplish anything you put your mind to.” #ReserveResilient

(Brugge is assigned to the 315th Airlift Wing public affairs office.)

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