On the anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Air Force, three generations of women gathered to celebrate.
Wanda Towner Harris, her daughter, Cindy Coram, and her granddaughter, Shelby Navarrette, celebrated the military branch they had given years of their life for. Their participation spanned from the Korean War to the Vietnam War to conflicts of the late 1990s.
The former southsiders shared stories of working as radio operators and air-traffic controllers and assisting with the upkeep of airbase operations. But most of all, they drew strength knowing that they had started and maintained a family tradition.
Harris, Coram and Navarrette served during periods of war and peace and saw firsthand the importance of serving their country. The family has developed a bond that goes even deeper than blood.
Who: Wanda Towner Harris
Family: Husband, Bill
Service: Active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 1948 to 1949
Occupation: Teletype and radio operator for Eastern Airlines; air traffic controller with Flight Service Station, working in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Zanesvile, Ohio, Dupage County, Ill., and Kankakee, Ill., airports
Who: Cindy Loncar Coram
Family: Husband, Tom
Service: Active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 1971 to 1976, then active and inactive duty Air Force Reserve 1976 to 1987
Occupation: Air traffic controller in Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Chicago
Who: Shelby Navarrette
Family: Husband, Ed; children, Shaylee and Ryan
Service: Active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 1997 to 2001
Occupation: Senior supervisor teller at Indiana Members Credit Union
“I just feel a deep sense of pride. When you go in, you don’t think it’s that big of a deal. But as you get older, you hear stories from our World War II veterans, Korea, and you realize now what that service meant,” Coram said. “It doesn’t matter what you did in the service. It takes everyone working together to get the job done.”
The family’s Air Force tradition took root after Harris graduated from high school. She was interested in becoming a nurse and looking for a way to finish her training.
Her brother suggested the Air Force, a newly formed military branch at the time that he had joined. They believed that nurse training was available through the Air Force.
Though that turned out not to be the case, Harris was able to develop skills that women at the time didn’t learn, such as radio operation, mechanical repair and Morse code.
Most importantly, she learned she had a knack for the mechanics of airplanes and fell in love with working in aviation, Harris said.
She married her first husband, Robert Loncar, after one year in the Air Force. At the time, married women could not continue their service, and she was honorably discharged.
But using what she learned, Harris embarked on a 34-year career in the airline industry, starting as a teletype and radio operator for Eastern Airlines and working her way up to air-traffic controller in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Zanesville, Ohio.
“I grew up at the airport, being out there with her while she was working,” Coram said. “She’d come home with stories, and I was always interested in aviation myself.”
Coram initially wanted to be a hairdresser after graduating from high school. Even though she completed her training at beauty college, she realized it wouldn’t be the most stable occupation she could choose.
When Harris asked her daughter what she was going to do with her life, Coram said she’d like to follow a path into aviation.
“Right then, she got in the car and drove me to the Air Force recruiter,” she said. “I wasn’t that interested in college. I was looking more for a trade school, and the military gives you that opportunity to learn a skill and get that experience, to get out and apply it to the private sector.”
Coram enlisted in 1971 and, after completing basic training, was stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and she immediately found herself in a vital support role for fighting airmen half a world away.
‘Much deeper meaning’
Her duties included processing flight orders for crews flying all over the world, alerting those aircrews for missions and ensuring they had the necessary forms to leave from and arrive into the country.
One of the most unusual jobs revolved around secretive information every airman needed in case he was shot down during missions. Before leaving for a mission, each man had to answer a series of four questions that would be used to authenticate their identity out on the battlefield.
Those answers were kept on cards, which were stored in the squadron headquarters. Coram had to make sure those cards were filed correctly and updated every six months.
That was difficult, because she knew that many of the young men whose cards she held would not make it home alive, Coram said.
But she used that experience as a gateway to her eventual career. Coram was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration and worked in air traffic control in Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Chicago.
“I wasn’t trying to break through any glass ceiling or anything like that. But I just wanted to go and get a career. It turned out to be much more than that and had a much deeper meaning for me,” Coram said.
And just like a generation before, Coram’s work experience influenced her daughter into the same line.
Navarrette was Coram’s only child. Since Coram was a single parent, the two formed a deep bond, often serving as confidantes and best friends.
So after Navarrette graduated from high school, she didn’t hesitate to go to her mom and ask for help. She had floundered trying to find a career path, taking business courses and obtaining her certification as a travel agent.
“I couldn’t get into college, so I better go to the college of life — the Air Force. The history that I had, my grandma and grandpa, my mom and my dad, it made the most sense,” she said.
‘Means the world to me’
Coram was quick to point out how much the service had helped her.
“I didn’t want to push her in that direction, but I saw her struggling like I was when I was her age,” Coram said. “I didn’t want to force it down her throat, so I just waited for her to come to me.”
But even as she was following the trail blazed by her mother and grandmother, Navarrette was pursuing her own unique path. She started in air traffic control but soon grew weary of the pace and duties.
Instead, she found her niche in base operations, checking runways for debris, relaying flight arrival and departure information, and ensuring runway lights were working correctly.
“It’s all aviation-related, all intertwined in aviation. I went with something that I knew growing up,” she said.
Navarrette served at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, receiving an honorable discharge in 2001. She has found a post-service career in the financial industry, working at Indiana Members Credit Union. She now lives in Plainfield with her husband, Ed, himself a 21-year veteran of the Air Force.
The three women are proud of their service and the time they spent in the military. They gathered together at the Greenwood Veterans of Foreign Wars Post to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the Air Force.
To be able to be part of the branch’s long tradition and history is an incredible feeling, Navarrette said.
“It means the world to me. It’s not just a sense of pride, it’s a sense of continuing on the family history. Just to be able to keep that going, it meant the world to me,” she said.