Rhonda Hodges was looking for a way to pay for college after graduating from Wichita’s Heights High School in 1972.
What followed set her on a journey that took her across the country and around the world, put her at the center of military intelligence, and saw her become one of about 800 female colonels currently serving in the Air Force’s active duty, Reserve and Air National Guard.
Over the past four decades, she has seen women’s status in the military improve, survived survival school by eating bugs, doubled as an Air Force captain and airline flight attendant, and been relegated to sitting in the back of the bus in Saudi Arabia.
“Good memories,” she said.
Saturday, Rhonda – now Col. Rhonda Braudis – will retire after 38 years in the Air Force. She and her husband, Russ Braudis, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, will continue to live in the Fort Worth area, in Azel, Texas.
She’ll be stepping down as the deputy director for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the Air Force Reserve Command’s headquarters in Georgia. But Braudis will stay busy volunteering for a nonprofit that helps the local animal shelter and is considering taking her efforts to the state level.
An animal lover, she cringed inside but didn’t blink when she had to take part in skinning a rabbit at survival school.
She’s always been the adventurous type. She took part in sports, pretended to go camping when she couldn’t actually go camping and learned from her dad how to take care of cars.
She was also determined to go to college.
“I didn’t want to be a secretary, married with two kids and a house with a fence,” Braudis said.
She also knew paying for college would be up to her.
She was working full time in retail her first year out of high school when she read a story in The Eagle about the Kansas Air National Guard recruiting members and the help it provided for going to school.
Some family members discouraged her from joining. Not her parents. They told her to go for it.
So she joined the Kansas Air National Guard in July 1973 and worked full time for the Guard while attending Butler County nights and weekends for two years. She would spend eight years as an enlisted airman – “I come from humble roots” – before returning to graduate from Washburn University in 1983.
Over the years, she would find many in the Air Force who would encourage her and serve as mentors. One of those was Russ, who was on active duty and a young navigator for the KC-135 tankers at McConnell Air Force Base, where Rhonda was also serving her Guard assignment.
They were married in 1982.
“My husband has been my biggest supporter and mentor in my career,” Braudis said. “He would always say, ‘Yes, you can.’ ”
Chicken or beef
After taking part in ROTC while attending Washburn – her two years at the Topeka school didn’t count for her total years in the Air Force – she was commissioned as an officer. She opted for a career in intelligence because she was told she would have a better chance of drawing an assignment where Russ was stationed.
Except for her one-year stint in Korea, that proved to be true.
Her 10 years of active duty included a stretch at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, when she logged more than 1,000 flying hours as the intelligence planner and one of the few women aboard an EC-135. That’s better known as the “Looking Glass” aircraft that was kept in flight around the clock during the Cold War years.
Crews at Offutt took 8.5-hour shifts on the Looking Glass flying in circles over the Midwest to ensure commands would able to continue to communicate in case of attack.
Braudis was at Offutt in 1991 when the size of the military was being reduced. She opted to shift to the Air Force Reserve and take a civilian job as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
“It was my fun job,” she said. “It was polar opposite from the military. Here I am an Air Force captain, master’s degree, and I’m saying, ‘Chicken or beef.’ ”
Her job with American ended weeks after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The airlines were cutting staff and flights, and the Air Force demanded more of her time and skills in intelligence.
“The whole flying business changed that day,” Braudis said. “It wasn’t going to be fun anymore.”
Braudis commonly was among few women during her career and was often on the cutting edge of change.
She was one of only six women in the Kansas Air National Guard at the time she joined. In 1973, women in the military didn’t receive the same family benefits as the men.
In her first job at McConnell for an aircraft maintenance squadron, she was the only woman in the unit of about 350 men.
But she persevered and is now among the 14 percent of Air Force colonels who are women. About 20 percent of all the officers in the Air Force are women.
“It was difficult for a young woman in a male environment in the military,” Braudis said. “We were harassed. But I truly felt the majority of the men I worked with embraced change and treated us like family and part of the team.
“There were a few people who created a hostile work environment, but there were so many more people who were professional and absolute stellar leaders.”
Although efforts have been made to curtail sexual hostility, a Pentagon survey found that unreported sexual assaults within all branches increased to 26,000 in 2012, up from 19,000 such cases the previous year.
“This isn’t the company line. This is how I feel,” Braudis said. “It’s good these things are coming out. There has always been sexual harassment in the work place, and the military is no different. To me, it’s not an Earth-shattering phenomenon.”
She said increased awareness and opportunity for reporting incidents probably has contributed to the jump in numbers. The military has ongoing training on sexual harassment that has helped curtail the problem, she added.
“There’s a night-and-day difference from what it used to be,” Braudis said. “People from all walks of life should be able to serve this wonderful country with no fears.”
She began seeing significant changes for women after they were first allowed in the military academies in 1976.
But she also knew plenty were wondering how she would do during a survival exercise in the hills of West Virginia in 1984. She was the only woman in a group of 120 service members in a joint operation by all branches, plus Canada and Great Britain. Some came from Special Forces units.
“These are snake eaters,” Braudis said.
A man from her unit in California hadn’t been able to complete the five-day evasion the previous year.
“He self-eliminated,” Braudis said. “There was a lot of pressure on me to make it through that exercise.”
The group was broken up into pairs. She teamed up with a Brit who was a flight engineer. The purpose was to avoid a “capture” while surviving in the woods. Rain and cold didn’t help.
“We had some close calls,” she said, “but we made it.”
Braudis has already received a letter from Texas Gov. Rick Perry congratulating her on her retirement. She’s also received a “Yellow Rose” recognition, which honors women in the Lone Star state who have done extraordinary things for their country, state and community.
“Before now, I never understood why anybody would want to retire from the military,” she said. “I loved it. It’s been a great way of life. I thought how sad someone would want to retire.
“But I get it now. You know intuitively it’s time to start the next chapter of your life.”
She’s learned to do things she didn’t think she could, to face challenges that seemed daunting. Now, she’ll turn to her passion of helping animals.
“I have no regrets,” Braudis said. “It’s time.”