Emily Roeder draws inspiration from fellow DuBourg alumna

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Before that night in March of 2012, freshman Emily Roeder knew nothing about the speaker who would welcome her and classmates as charter members of Bishop DuBourg High School’s Academy of Advanced Studies, a four-year program for gifted students.

But after the speech, Roeder had not only learned about but been inspired by the speaker, then-Colonel Jeannie Flynn Leavitt, the 1985 DuBourg alumna who has accomplished a series of firsts for women in the U.S. Air Force. Among them:

 First woman fighter pilot in the Air Force.

• First woman pilot to graduate from the elite USAF Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas

• First woman F-15E flight instructor and first woman instructor pilot at the USAFWS.

 First woman to command of an Air Force combat fighter wing, the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

 First woman to command the 57th Wing at Nellis.

In 35 years since being in the stage of life as Roeder was then, a DuBourg freshman, Leavitt, 49, has blazed trails for women in the Air Force. Leavitt has reached heights previously unimaginable in a male-dominated world and inspired a DuBourg student just as she was from August 1981 through May 1985. Leavitt received DuBourg’s distinguished alumni award and delivered the commence address in May 2015.

“She’s like a role model,” said Roeder, who will report in a few weeks to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “I knew I wanted to be military, but just seeing her accomplishments kind of showed me like, ‘Wow, I can be like her someday; maybe I could get that far and do something amazing like her.’ She inspired me a little bit.”

That’s par for the course for Leavitt, who does as many such school appearances as her schedule allows. As Air Force Captain Patricia Nadeau told ABC a few years ago, she inspires “regardless of gender. I think everyone is going to look up to her.”

Leavitt is humble about her accomplishments. Her goal starting out was simple: to fly fighter jets. Being the first anything didn’t cross her mind. “Gender, race, religion, none of that matters,” she told ABC. “What matters is how you perform.”

As for Roeder, Leavitt commended her for “many accomplishments” and wrote in an email wrote that Roeder is embarking on an ”exciting adventure. … I’m thrilled that she chose the Air Force Academy.”

Roeder chose the Air Force appointment over appointments to West Point and Naval Academy, a rare hat trick of military appointments. The acceptance for each military academy is only 9 percent of applicants, with chances for three appointments minuscule at best.

In one sense, Roeder is following in Leavitt's footsteps, but in accepting the appointment, she's taking a different path to the Air Force. Leavitt didn't attend the Air Force Academy; she went to the University of Texas, graduating with a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering in 1990. She earned a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University, in 1991, then entered the Air Force in January 1992 — about 14 months before restrictions for woman combat pilots were lifted. She collected three more master's degrees in the 2000s.

According to her official Air Force bio, she has more than 3,000 flight hours and 300 combat hours, over Iraq or Afghanistan. In April, after two years as principal military assistant to the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, she was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed 57th Wing commander.

"She just became brigadier general, which is huge, especially for a woman in the military," said Roeder, who wrote a letter for Leavitt last year offering insights into her interest in the military to possibly help recruit the best and brightest of the next generation. "Just her overcoming that obstacle of being a woman in the military is ... inspiring. She obviously has had to work super hard to get where she is and I admire her work ethic."

Roeder is no slouch when it comes to work ethic. She has been working out "almost on a daily basis" since late November with the St. Louis Military Officers Support Foundation, a non-profit operated by fitness trainer Keath Hausher.

"It's for kids who want to be officers in the military and current officers; it's really a great program," said Roeder, who played three sports at DuBourg — soccer, basketball and cross country. "We would do a lot of physical workouts and we also learned about the military while we do it. We just do a lot of great things; going to these workouts and meetings with him have really helped me in the process." 

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