Flight is part of Alyssa Degner’s daily life. As a Boom Operator, Alyssa’s role on the KC-135 is to operate the in-flight air refueling controls to make safe contact between the KC-135 tanker plane and the receiving plane, allowing for refueling to be completed in mid-air. Degner completes local refueling missions and is also involved in meeting other objectives, such as transporting up to six pallets of cargo at a time or completing aeromedevac missions to bring back injured service members from overseas.
When not actively refueling, a boom operator is seated in the cockpit with the pilots. They are expected to know about the hydraulic and electric systems in the plane, as well as how to monitor flight instruments during takeoffs and landings. They also collaborate with the pilots to troubleshoot any mechanical issues in flight. Boom operators hold all that knowledge in addition to knowing how to fulfill their typical operations and role. In short, “Basically everything behind the pilot’s head is your responsibility.”
Alyssa grew up in Milwaukee, WI, and says that the only thing she was always sure of was that she had no idea what she wanted to do or study in college. With additional goals of travel and financial independence, Degner almost chose to pursue a career in the Army and even participated in some Army drills. After talking with a member of her church, Degner chose to pursue the Air National Guard instead.
Alyssa joined the National Guard with the 128th Refueling Wing in May of her senior year of high school and attended college full-time in between her service commitments. She attended UW Whitewater for two years, on track to becoming a bilingual elementary school teacher, before realizing that she enjoyed her military work much more. She left school to pursue more time in the military setting and returned years later to finish a degree at UW Milwaukee in community engagement and education.
The Air National Guard is unique in comparison to active-duty service, because there is a wide range of possible involvement. Opportunities range from part-time weekend service all the way up to full-time. Wisconsin is home to three full-service Air National Guard bases which include medical, maintenance, police, and fire department crews. Others choose to participate in monthly drill weekends while working in full-time civilian jobs. Drill weekends serve as a time to complete annual training requirements to simulate the National Guard’s capabilities during conflict. Since Alyssa enjoys her military service time, she chooses to pursue more days of active service.
Between serving on deployments, supplementing active-duty missions, and fulfilling basic guard duties, Degner can fulfill up to 250 days of military service per year and sometimes more. With such a large number of service days, Alyssa has used her small window of remaining time to work in various seasonal jobs, including teaching for outdoor education programs to get children involved in nature.
Like other service members, Alyssa’s military journey began with basic training. Degner says that basic training made an impression on her faith life because of the witnessing opportunities she had. During basic training, service members are given protected time to worship on Sundays, and participating in worship automatically makes attendees unavailable for other Sunday morning duties. “In basic training, people who don’t normally want to go to church are very open.”
Alyssa recalls her prayer routine during basic training, “I would take five minutes to sit on my bed and pray before lights went out, and people would come up to me later and ask me to pray for them.” Degner had no idea that others were noticing her habits, but her actions opened many opportunities to pray with and for others and share her faith. Those visible actions helped Alyssa to connect with other Christian service members and helped to build a community of those grounded in God’s Word.
After basic training and tech school, Alyssa started her career in an information management role. For the first five years of her career, she worked for the people who flew airplanes by doing various administrative tasks. Degner applied twice to become a boom operator before being selected for her current role. Once she was selected, it was time to attend flight school.
Flight school consisted of three different schools, lasting for eight to nine months in total. The first was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, for one month of book work and fundamentals classes. The next was in Atlus, Oklahoma for a few weeks of books, simulators, and flights. Finally, the last school consisted of mainly flying with instructions and additional training. Alyssa completed survival school as well and states it was one of her favorite experiences. Airmen in survival school learn to signal for help in the wilderness, find food to eat, and other survival skills. Alyssa loved the beautiful landscape and enjoyed spending time in nature.
Degner laughs as she talks about enjoying flight school, having fun, and building a close relationship with her two roommates during that time, while simultaneously battling her nerves to the point of sickness. “I was so nervous about flying. I spent the whole last two weeks throwing up, because I was so nervous.” Degner never let her nerves prevent her from flying and remembers reassuring her concerned instructors that she was fine.
Since finishing flight school, Alyssa has completed many successful missions and deployments in the last four years as a boom operator. She has flown all over the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as overseas to Germany and England. Degner completed a two-and-a-half-month deployment in Qatar as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as deployments to Guam. Alyssa recently completed a 70-day deployment to Guam and states it was her favorite deployment so far.
In addition to enjoying snorkeling, swimming, and waterfall hikes between her duties in Guam, Alyssa’s husband Ethan was able to visit for one week. Alyssa says that staying in touch with home is certainly made easier by technologies like FaceTime, but mission-dependent flying schedules still make it difficult to have regular contact, so an in-person visit was a huge blessing. Alyssa and Ethan have been married almost one year, and Alyssa credits Ethan with doing a wonderful job handling her first deployment since the couple has been married. Ethan had many supportive friends to keep him occupied and involved at home, and Alyssa was grateful that he was able to come to Guam to meet her supportive coworkers and friends.
One member of Alyssa’s support network while deployed also happens to be her sister. Alyssa’s sister serves in the Air National Guard as part of the same squadron and works with the aircrew flight equipment. Together, Alyssa and her sister organized a group to watch live streamed church services at St. Marcus in Milwaukee, WI, every week while deployed. Pastor Hein of St. Marcus was even able to send individual communion cups to Guam, so that WELS/ELS service members could follow along and take communion during the service.
Alyssa states that live streamed services played a huge role in getting her connected to St. Marcus in the first place. Degner had friends attending church at St. Marcus when the pandemic shut down in-person services in 2020 and had to deploy that summer. “St. Marcus had a livestream, so I watched that during the night shift.” Alyssa also participated in virtual Bible study during that summer. Having a group of supportive Christians to share in faith is vitally important to Alyssa, and it’s what motivated her to organize a church-watching group while deployed. “Our culture has identified loneliness as a significant mental health threat, and plenty of people will name separation from loved ones as one of the hardest parts of military service. Loneliness and separation from community are threats to spiritual health as well. We need encouragement from other followers of Jesus.” Alyssa remembered the struggle of that separation on her first deployment and felt unsure of how to achieve that connection. This time, Alyssa and her sister built that community by inviting others they knew might be seeking that same thing. The group was a great blessing while deployed and ended up being even larger than they expected.So far, Alyssa has served in the Air National Guard for ten years, and she intends to continue for the foreseeable future. When she does eventually retire from military service, Degner says she plans to do something completely different and changes her mind often. “Probably something with education, nature, children, and families. Or working at a library.” Degner stays motivated by remembering what she is truly doing through her military service. “I used to have this card in my wallet that said, ‘You are here in this place with these people, because God called, and you said yes. His purposes for you and those around you extend far beyond training requirements and mission objectives. He loves these airmen.’ Work can be monotonous. I see the brokenness of people, my own sinfulness, the stuff people feel in every job. You don’t always see it elevated to the spiritual realm, but military work is kingdom work. It can be very challenging to think that way, but it’s important to remember.”
Written by Natalie Lendt, 2023