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Reservist recalls early days as African-American female Airman

  • Published
  • By Airman Jenna K. Caldwell
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
She stood sharp at attention in the mirror. With a straight knife hand and upper arm horizontal to the ground, her right hand continually swept through the motions of a proper military salute. She practiced this courtesy for many nights before bed when she first commissioned in 1963. 

This Airman is a 26-year veteran, retired Lt. Col Mattie Boyd. She was born and raised on a farm in Reardon, Texas. Her father worked railroad and construction jobs, while her mother was a housewife and tended to the gardens. Boyd always knew she wanted to do more.

"I had a motivation that I was not going to be a farmer," said Boyd. "I knew that I wanted to go to a professional school. I needed money so I worked, and though they paid very little, I saved enough money."

At 17, she began working in a small hospital clinic as a nurse's aid doing small tasks, from washing bed pans to serving food trays. One afternoon, when the nurse team went to lunch, Boyd was asked to sit with an expectant mother.

"At one point, I decided to look and the babies head was already crowning," said Boyd. "I started screaming. I went to the door and screamed for a doctor, 'you better run, this baby is coming!'"

Boyd helped with the delivery and was later asked by the parents to name the baby. From this moment on, Boyd knew that she wanted to be a nurse.

"That certainly was an experience and I loved it," said Boyd "I moved and went to school in Missouri. I lost contact with them, so I never knew what happened to that little boy. That's the job."

Boyd attended Homer G. Philips School of Nursing and earned her Bachelor's Degree. In 1963, she joined the Reserve Nurse Corps at Scott Air Force Base, and in June commissioned as a first lieutenant. Boyd commissioned directly and never went to Officer Training School. Less than 30 days later, her unit was sent to Eglin AFB for field combat exercise training.

"I would practice saluting every night in my mirror trying to get used to it," said Boyd "When we got to Eglin, I saw all the Navy and Army. I didn't even know our ranks at that point. So I told myself, 'The best thing for you to do is salute everything you see, and you'll be on the safe side.'"

During Boyd's whole career she was the only African American nurse in her unit. She faced many social challenges as an African-American woman in service back then, from trouble promoting to being refused service at local off-base establishments, but she never let these disadvantages slow her down.

Boyd lived and worked in hospitals in St. Louis and completed her reserve duties at Scott AFB. A little over a year after commissioning, Mattie was shopping at the Base Exchange when she literally fell head over heels for an officer who was bent down in the aisle. This Airman was Maj. George Boyd, a retired 28 year combat veteran and Tuskegee Airmen, and he was active duty at Scott AFB at the time. The two fell in love, got married and received a joint-spouse assignment to McConnell AFB.

"George was real help to me because he was active duty with officer training and he knew everything," said Mattie. "The Air Force has helped in a lot of areas: education, diversity, culture--it helped break me out of my comfort zone."

One example of this guidance was when she became a trained flight nurse and had to qualify in ditching from a boat, even though she could not swim. With the encouragement from her husband and help from her classmates, she was able to complete the course.

As a flight nurse, she trained in aeromedical evacuation, completing the flight responsibilities of nursing patients which included setting up stints, oxygen mask testing and starting IVs during exercise missions.

"Mattie was determined, and I have always advocated for her and everybody else to do the things they want to do," said George Boyd. "I think it's long overdue that they are realizing [women's] potential. If it's me and I'm in a foxhole and they're in the foxhole, all I want to know is that they can shoot straight. That's what it's all about when you get right down to it."

Over the years Boyd has seen the role of women in the military shift as glass ceilings shattered; the repeal of the two percent cap on the number of women serving in 1967 to the Department of Defense opening up all military combat positions to women just this year.

"I think women should be independent; it starts with determination," said Mattie. "It makes me proud to see so many young ladies in the military now. When I first joined we did not have many high ranking [women] and now they can be in combat if they want. I think that's great."

When Boyd wasn't on flight status or advancing her training, she was busy working in the base hospital as a civilian nurse and on weekends as a reservist. When the base deactivated the Nurse Corp here, she was transferred to a reserve unit in Kansas City. She continued to work at hospitals in the area and continued her education through local universities, such as Wichita State University.

"The military really pushed education, so I did Squadron Officers School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College and more," said Mattie. "I was a student for 50 years. If some new technology or specialties came up in nursing, I got that degree. I always wanted to improve."

Even to this day, she uses her training to help others. She volunteers with an organization called the Wichita Black Nurses Association that provides free preventative health screenings to the local community and partners with awareness organizations like the American Heart Association promoting education campaigns.

"Once a nurse, always a nurse," said Mattie. "As a clinical nurse back then in the hospital, a typical eight-hour shift could turn into 24 hours just like that. It's not always easy, but you never forget what you learn."

Standing in her living room, over 50 years since she first commissioned and first learned to salute, Mattie looks into a mirror. She places on her dark blue flight cap, with its silver trim and a silver oak leaf adorning the side. With one swift motion, she raises her hand in salute and quickly brings it back down. She then folds her cap, lays it back into the box and sets it back on the shelf in the closet.