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By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
Illinois Air National Guard (ILANG) Capt. Jennifer Weitekamp, of Athens, Illinois, did not set out to be a trailblazer with her military service, but when then-Senior Airman Jennifer Donaldson graduated from the Air National Guard’s pilot Counter Sniper School on April 14, 2001, she became just that – a trailblazer for military women.
“The Counter Sniper school sounded like a lot of fun, a ‘cool school’,” said Weitekamp, who became the first woman to complete a U.S. military sniper school – the first woman sniper in the Department of Defense. “It was a very challenging course, not fun, but I learned a lot. There were days I wanted to go home. I was scared and nervous. But I kept telling myself I could do it so others could attend.”
Weitekamp, a lifelong resident of Illinois, joined the ILANG as a member of the security force squadron while still in high school and attended basic training the summer after graduation. During her six years in security forces, she spent nearly three years on active duty, deploying several times in support of Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. She later earned a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and a Master’s of Education from the University of Illinois.
Weitekamp said she chose security forces because she wanted a civilian law enforcement career. However, her devotion to service, as well as the growth of her family led her to working full-time for the Air National Guard.
“I wanted to be a law enforcement officer,” Weitekamp said. “I decided the military was the best way to get my foot in the door.”
Following a stint as a paralegal, she started work in personnel. It was working in this role for the 183rd Air Operations Group that Weitekamp applied for and earned her commission as a second lieutenant. She now works as a personnel officer for the Joint Staff at Illinois’ Joint Force Headquarters on Camp Lincoln, in Springfield, Illinois.
While her accomplishment two decades before may seem all but forgotten, the ‘Women in the Air Force’ exhibit at the National Museum of the Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, ensures others know her two-decades-old feat.
The exhibit, titled ‘Women in the Air Force: From Yesterday into Tomorrow,’ highlights Weitekamp’s and others’ achievements in their civilian and military careers with an emphasis on the U.S. Air Force. It opened March 5 as part of Women’s History Month.
According to Weitekamp, who attended the exhibit’s opening, the display is sprinkled throughout the museum, so visitors can view the different timelines and achievements covered by the exhibit as they walk through the museum.
“Each person honored on the exhibit was invited to attend the opening,” she said. “It was surreal to see myself on an exhibit.”
Weitekamp said military service is what one makes of it.
“I would urge anyone thinking of military service to know what you want from your service,” she said. “I’ve benefited from several mentors and without those leaders, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of what I’ve accomplished. Someone has your back and I would urge you to be that person for others.”
According to museum Curator Jennifer Blankinship, telling the story of what women in the Air Force have overcome and their contributions to support the mission is a significant chapter in Air Force history, and by expanding the museum’s exhibits to better represent the role of women, the museum is able to better highlight how vital the contributions of each Airman is to the future of the Air Force.
“Courageous women have broken barriers in all walks of life and those in the Air Force are certainly no different,” said Blankinship. “It has always been important for us to tell the story of what women in the Air Force have accomplished, and it is my hope that this exhibit will inspire future generations to pursue their goals regardless of how difficult it might seem.”
Weitekamp is an active member of the National Guard Association of the United States, the National Guard Association of Illinois, Menard County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6871 in Petersburg, Illinois, the local blood bank and her church. She and her husband John have three children.