Veteran's Voice: Elain Gerstenberger
Cameron resident Elaine Gerstenberger initially was a member of the Civil Air Patrol. They operate a training system very similar to ROTC, and their main mission is search and recovery of crashed civilian aircraft. Elaine was a trainer, and in that capacity had the opportunity to travel overseas to conduct trainings. in 1981 the program took her to France for two weeks, and in 1982 to Israel. As a result, she caught the “travel bug”, which led her to join the United States Air Force.
She enlisted with an “open field”, which she now does not recommend to new recruits. She took basic training in San Antonio, after which she was assigned to Keesler AFB in Mississippi. She was assigned to train as a Morse Code operator (called “ditty boppers”). Unable to meet the minimum words per minute guidelines. She was then allowed to choose a field and trained as an Operations Assistance Specialist, or T7131. This was on-the-job training at Sembach AFB in Germany, located near the French border. She was assigned to ATOC (Allied Tactical Operations Center). She was with the HG17 Air Force Combat Operations Staff, a position which required a Top-Secret clearance.
This was a NATO affiliated base and in emergency situations NATO officials would come to the fortified bunkers at Sembach, AFB. Her position in communications was to receive Emergency Alerts and convey them to combat operations officers. Her duties included: maintaining NATO code words, accountability for classified material, maintaining an Emergency Action checklist, the NATO Alert Action Plan, implement and maintain wide recall and battle staff recall as directed, provide quick access to the Reaction checklist, control and inventory of COMSEC information. Sembach was a key airbase for NATO.
When off-duty, she had the opportunity to travel what she described as “beautiful country” with side trips to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Norway, and toured “Frankenstein’s Castle”! Her unit went on 10-20 day “marches” during recreation time. She was at Sembach AFB from January of 1983 until December 1985. She met her husband, Phil, while in Germany. They were legally married by a German Burgermeister, then had a church wedding on July 4, 1984 when they were on leave in the States.
Still with ATOC, she was assigned to Homestead AFB in Homestead, Florida, with the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Initially the fighter jets were F-4’s, but switched to F-16’s. Her title was Emergency Action Combat Reports Controller and included a variety of tasks. She coordinated aircraft scheduling and training activities, connected pilots with other office sections, provided Top Secret codes to pilots, calculated pilot monthly training hours (meeting minimum number of flight hours), gave staff briefings on weather conditions and forecasts, worked at data processing, filing, and typing. Other extra duties included acting as a ROM (Runway Observation Monitor), observed takeoffs and landings, watching for interferences such as debris or birds, auditing of operations and aircraft, and maintaining Intelligence records.
Phil and Elaine moved to Cameron in 1993 and have lived here since. She is currently the Director of Veterans Program Services for Cameron and nine additional counties. Her office is located within the Cameron Veterans Home and she has a satellite office in Chillicothe.
Elaine says that her best memory of her military service was meeting her husband Phil. Her worst memory was the difficult decision to retire from the Air Force. She really enjoyed her career, but realized she was missing critical time with her two young sons, and family life ruled over her military career. The decision was made sadder when her unit deployed to the Middle East for Desert Storm, and she strongly missed the fact she was not with them at that time. She really does miss the relationships she forged during her career.