An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

A legacy of serving, giving back

  • Published
  • By Michele Donaldson

In her very first days of employment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1984, Kathy Watern’s supervisor was already planning her future when they discussed her three-year career plan.

“They had me at day one,” she said. “The Air Force showed over and over again how much they cared about me and my career and wanted me to stay.”

Watern was recently selected for the prestigious Legacy Award by the Air and Space Forces-Wright Memorial Chapter. The award recognizes the Air Force civilian who has made significant contributions to the mission of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and to the prestige of Ohio’s Dayton/Miami Valley Community.

Watern, a member of the Senior Executive Service, began her current position as the Director, Manpower, Personnel and Services, Air Force Materiel Command, in August 2023. 

 When Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, AFMC Commander, asked her to consider the position, she was surprised and a little apprehensive, as she was not a personnel expert by trade. Richardson assured her that her varied experiences and passion for people would be a mission benefit.

“I have learned that sometimes the Air Force asks us to do things we haven’t thought about, and it ends up being a great thing,” said Watern. “I have a fantastic staff and concepts that I look forward to putting into action.”

The position is a significant progression from where she began in 1984.

“I started as a summer hire while attending Wright State University, and the seeds were planted then to become a civilian employee.”

 Watern’s mother was a career Department of Defense civilian working in the Acquisition Center, and it was her influence that led Watern to apply for a trainee position after graduation. As an accounting major, she was drawn to the business side of acquisition and was excited to accept a position in financial management several years later.

She was surprised at how much responsibility the Air Force entrusted to her in a very short time. When a supervisor was planning a KC-10 program trip to the Pentagon, she went with him.

“I couldn’t believe it when the Colonel uttered the magical words, ‘take Kathy the trainee with you,’ and off I went,” said Watern. 

The trip was just the first of many mentoring experiences over the years. Watern met people she wanted to learn from and was gratified that so many were willing to let her tag along and learn.

“I felt so taken care of. People genuinely cared and wanted me to succeed,” said Watern. “I never saw that in corporate America.”

 When Watern started, most civilian employees tended to stay in one place. Career broadening beyond the home base was not as common.

“We used to value deep technical experience, whether it was in engineering, contracting, finance, or program management,” she said. “Now we see the importance of a familiarity with different functional areas and programs, but over time. There are fundamentals that you must understand before you can move on.”

That curiosity to explore other areas lead her to take a position at the Pentagon, where she stayed for six years.

“I loved the energy of D.C. and expected to finish my career there but was given the opportunity to become the Executive Director for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center,” she said. “Typically, those positions were reserved for the more engineering and technical professions, so it was a career high to be able to influence careers and shape our future – a dream job.”

AFLCMC is known for maintaining a strong training model that has been replicated across the Air Force. Watern built on those processes as the executive director there, and in her new position, she hopes to bring more of the center’s innovative practices to the command-level.

“I am following some amazing people in this job,” said Watern. “My focus is to align with the strategic plan and make sure we have enterprise-approaches to talent management. That is a focus area of opportunity in A1.”

Her vision is for Civilian Personnel to be an organization that tries new things and says ‘yes,’ more often than ‘no.’

Watern has mentored hundreds of individuals in her time and encourages those behind her to take their time and learn.

“You don’t see as many people staying in the same job area for their entire career,” she continued. “Employees have more of a say-so in what they want to do with their careers. That’s a positive thing and a big change, but I spent many years at GS 12 and 13. If I didn’t have that experience, I could not do what I do today.”

She tells her protégés to look for opportunities to set themselves apart from their coworkers. She acknowledges that there may be disappointments along the way, but to learn from the experience and move on.

“Stay away from the rumor mill, and take advantage of training and career opportunities,” she said. “The Air Force will be training me until I walk out the door for the last time.”

Her legacy and her reason for serving are simple.

“The Air Force cared about me from day one, and my goal is to ensure those that come behind me have every opportunity possible to show excellence in what they do – our nation depends on it,” said Watern.  “This is not a job, it’s a career. What we do is unrivaled.”