Bobi Oates didn’t want to be an airplane mechanic; she wanted to be a cop. And she was … sort of. After getting an associate’s degree in criminal justice, she landed a job as deputy sheriff for a small county in Vermont, where she was raised. This was the ’70s, when, to get to the big leagues of policing, women had to meet the same requirements as men.
“At 5-feet, 3-inches, that just wasn’t going to happen for me,” Oates says today.
So she took a friend’s advice to get the same kind of challenge and see the world by joining the U.S. Air Force. She enlisted just as the Air Force was expanding its opportunities for women, Oates says, and based on her aptitude, they persuaded her to take one of the jobs available to the gentler sex: aircraft mechanic.
Lugging around heavy toolboxes and airplane parts and spending some 12-hour days on her feet took their toll on Oates. But where she was short on brawn, she had grit in spades. She recalls a flight chief telling her he didn’t need female staff sergeants on his flight line, so she moved over to job control and continued to climb through the ranks.
“I didn’t think I’d make it four years,” Oates says today. “I made it 23.”
In 1999, she retired as a senior master sergeant. At the pinnacle of her distinguished career, she was one of the four people chosen to establish the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles at Creech Air Force Base. Oates is Nevada’s Veteran of the Month for December.
Today, her mission involves a different type of maintenance: fixing the relationship between the U.S. military and its former female members. Nearly 10 years ago, she began volunteering with Women Veterans of Nevada; now she’s on the executive board and the ceremonial team that conducts weekly funerals at Boulder Cemetery for veterans who’ve died homeless or in the absence of loved ones.
“It’s a way to make sure no vet passes without being honored and remembered,” Oates says.
Based on that service, in the summer of 2014 Governor Brian Sandoval appointed her to the five-member Nevada Women Veterans Advisory Committee, a statewide group charged with identifying female veterans and advocating on their behalf. As the only member of the group in Southern Nevada, Oates represents the bulk of the state’s population.
The new advisory committee faces enormous obstacles. Out of 21,000-plus female vets in the state, Veterans Services has located only 2,500. This matters, Oates says, because women are missing out on valuable benefits, such as education and health care.
For example, she says, “A lot of female vets are of child-bearing age, so they need access to obstetrics.” One of the committee’s recommendations that has already been implemented is the hiring of a full-time OB-Gyn at the Nevada Veterans Medical Center.
But a lot of work remains. The committee wants job and benefit applications changed to ask, “Have you ever served in the U.S. military?” rather than the current, “Are you a U.S. military veteran?” because women don’t self-identify as vets. In June, the committee gave the governor a long list of recommendations for better communications, promotions and technology to spread the word about available benefits and services, and then keep track of those who respond.
“Women have served,” Oates says. “And they’ve all been volunteers, because women have never been drafted. Sometimes, we weren’t even wanted, but we’ve always been there.”
Now, she adds, they need to know the state and country they served are there for them.