She grew up poor, the second oldest of nine children in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her dad had left school after 5th grade to support his family. A life-long battle with polio left her mom unable to finish high school, instead earning a general equivalency diploma at age 60. Helping to care for seven younger siblings made prospects for furthering her own education and forging a life for herself seem impossibly out of reach.
But a shot at joining the Air Force in 1968 gave her the glimmer of hope she needed. Today, Lillian Nolan is the command historian for Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and one of the senior ranking civilians in her career field. Her personal journey serves as a snapshot of women’s history in the Air Force during a time of great change, illustrating where opportunities began and how they’ve flourished since.
“It doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish,” is Nolan’s message for young people today. “You can be anything you want to be.”
She was terrified. She’d never been away from home and the flight from New York to San Antonio was her first. She was the only woman on the bus ride from the airport to Lackland Air Force Base. When she stepped off the bus, she stood in front of the men’s chow hall.
“But that says it’s the men’s,” the 18-year-old Nolan told the bus driver.
“It’s time for chow. We’re stopping here,” he replied.
“I walked in and it appeared to me there were a thousand men in this room and — me,” Nolan said. “But some of the senior NCOs saw I was really in distress. I was terrified. They brought me over, sat me down and they went and got my food.”
Nolan never got the opportunity to thank those senior NCOs, but it was a moment that stayed with her and served as an example of the service she encountered throughout her career.
Afterward, Nolan was taken to the women’s barracks, where she shared a room with two other women.
“My first morning, I wasn’t used to the southern drawl and this woman came down the hallway saying, ‘It is oh-five-hundred and you will get up, your bed will be made, your hair will be combed, you will wear fresh lipstick and you will smell sweet,’ and that was the beginning,” Nolan said.
From Lackland, Nolan moved on to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, for technical training as a teletype and keypunch operator, one of the early functions of the communications career field. Personal computers were still 20 years in the future and mainframe computers were the size of a room.
After tech school, Nolan was assigned to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., where she met and married her husband. In those days she had to get permission from her supervisor to get married. Her supervisor highly discouraged her.
“They really didn’t want me to get married and you can understand why, because if you got married and you got pregnant, there really wasn’t any process to stay in at the time,” Nolan said. However, they stopped short of telling her no entirely, and Nolan was able to convince a co-worker to cover her shift so she could tie the knot.
As a young, married woman, Nolan soon found herself ready to start a family. But motherhood was not considered compatible with military service at the time, so after nearly two years on active duty, Nolan received an honorable discharge and delivered a baby girl.
She spent the next 10 years raising her children, working part-time and going to school using the Montgomery GI Bill she’d earned on active duty. An associate’s degree was her first step.
“With two small children, you never know how far you can go,” Nolan said. “I got an associate’s degree so I’d have a piece of paper.”
After a decade out of the mainstream workforce, Nolan took the civil service test, which measured her aptitude for work as a federal employee. Today, there is no longer a single civil service exam to cover all government jobs, and most don’t require a written test at all.
Nolan landed a position as a temporary GS-3, working for the Air Force Finance and Accounting Center at Lowry Air Force Base, Colo. In 1980, a GS-3 earned approximately $9,700 annually. Today that figure has more than doubled.
“There was a hiring freeze on, so I couldn’t get a permanent job initially,” Nolan said. She continued going to school while also working as a clerk-typist and then a secretary. After she finished her bachelor’s degree, she saw an announcement for a position as a historian.
“It sounded very interesting, but I knew nothing about the field,” Nolan said. “I was willing and eager to learn and was selected for the position. It started as a job, but quickly became a career I have thoroughly enjoyed for 27 years.
“A lot of my background has led me to the position I’m in now,” Nolan said. “I love to travel. I love new opportunities and challenges.”
After five years as a historian in Denver, she was offered a position at Kadena Air Base, Japan. She was apprehensive at the prospect of leaving the country for the first time and living outside the United States. But her love of adventure pushed her on and it turned out to be a rewarding experience personally and professionally.
In Japan, Nolan met then-1st Lt. Lisa Turner, a young Air Force lawyer just starting out. Even then, Turner said she was struck by Nolan’s willingness to help others succeed.
“She mentors, trains and develops her people, no matter who they are or what background they come from,” Turner said. Now a colonel and AETC’s staff judge advocate, she’s still impressed with Nolan’s dedication.
“She educates us,” Turner said. “She’ll find something that’s timely or relevant to the ongoing discussions and present it in a fun, educational way, helping us better understand our history and why things are the way they are.”
Nolan’s time in Japan included a position as president of the Federally Employed Women. She was able to work with the local Officers Wives Club to erect a historical marker on Kadena dedicated to the civilian women who served on Okinawa as early as 1952.
Over the next 20 years, Nolan found new challenges and opportunities to travel. She served in positions with the 313th Air Division and 18th Air Force, Kadena Air Base, Japan; Air Weather Service, Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; Air Force Weather Agency, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.; 16th Air Force, Aviano Air Base, Italy; Air Armament Center, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; and Air Mobility Command, Scott AFB, Ill. She also earned a master’s degree in education.
Even positions in places that didn’t immediately sound enticing turned out to be wonderful experiences, Nolan said.
“Every place I’ve ever been, if it wasn’t the place I had decided I really wanted to go, it turned out to be just awesome anyway. Every place is what you make it,” she said.
That willingness to try new things and take on new challenges laid the foundation for Nolan’s steady ascent to the top of her career field.
Today, she records the history of the Air Force’s “First Command,” AETC. She said her job is all about preserving Air Force history and heritage to help leaders of tomorrow make sound decisions for the service.
“We write about what is happening today from a command perspective, and we have the documentation to back up the facts about decisions that are made,” Nolan said. “We pull together information written in the past when we’re making new acquisitions so leadership has that to help guide them in making decisions today.”
Documentation is crucial to preserving history, Turner said, and can mean the difference between history and historical opinion.
“She’s a scholar,” Turner said. “Citing the facts is really important as an academic, so that individuals can later go back to the source documents. Otherwise, you have people shaping history based on their own perceptions, instead of based on source documents. That precision is really, really important.”
In addition to recording the history, Nolan and her four-person staff are responsible for about 1,000 pieces of Air Force art, 150 display aircraft, several museums and all the AETC wing history programs.
Nolan said she’s had great opportunities as a historian and she’s learned a lot along the way. One of the most poignant moments of her career took place at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2007, as she traveled with civilian artists to capture the aeromedical evacuation mission for Air Mobility Command and the Air Force Art program. She spoke with a young Airman and told her how proud she was to see all of the good work the Airman and her team were doing there.
“(The Airman’s) smile just enveloped her whole face because you could see she was proud of the job she was doing,” Nolan said. “It choked me up because everybody I met was ‘just doing their job.’ It was a very humbling experience.”
Times have changed since 1968, for the Air Force and for Nolan. Air Force instructions no longer require women to wear girdles or lipstick or perfume. Women currently serve honorably as mothers and as Airmen. As recently as eight years ago, Nolan was the first woman to serve as a command historian. And today the U.S. Senate is contemplating the nomination of the Air Force’s first female four-star general.
But things haven’t changed entirely Nolan said, and she’s grateful for that.
“Airmen still want to do a good job today, just like they did back when I was on active duty,” she said. “They care about people and they’re here to get a job done. They might not have signed up to fight and die for their country, but they all know that’s a possibility and they’re willing to go anyway.”
As the Senate considers confirming Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger’s nomination for promotion, Turner said it’s important to remember the women like Nolan, who served on active duty even for a short time, because they opened up opportunities for women in service today.
“The most important aspect of General Wolfenbarger’s nomination is that she is preeminently qualified for the position,” Turner said. “She is the best person for the job regardless of her gender. Given that, I think it also reinforces the meritocracy of the institution, that if you are extraordinarily good at what you do, you will be recognized and put forward for that.
“Folks like (Nolan) have paved the way for us. They helped the institution progress.”
Nolan credits her success to the opportunities provided through service.
“I was 18 with no prospects and mediocre to average grades,” Nolan said. ”For me, [being accepted to the Air Force] was the catalyst that changed my entire life. I love the Air Force. Every moment is not golden for anybody, but it has given me so many opportunities I never would have had.”