It took Lisa Marie Demers-Aiello almost 50 years to discover the North Georgia foothills and mountains, but the Cleveland, Georgia, resident made it clear at the conclusion of her interview, “We love up here, and we’re not going anywhere!” Touché.
Demers-Aiello was 12 years old when the Methuen, Massachusetts, native’s family moved to Lake Wales, Florida. She recalled, “Yeah, that was a big change, especially the sunny weather and beaches.” In the spring of 1986, she graduated from Lake Wales High School. By October, Demers-Aiello was en route to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for basic training. When asked why she chose the Air Force, Demers-Aiello replied, “The Air Force offered me the best opportunity for college and personal growth, and I wanted to earn a degree.”
Asked her first impression of Lackland AFB:
“Oh, my goodness, we were on a bus going through the base and I thought, ‘Lisa, what have you done?’ I mean, seeing all this military stuff and being there, and I’m a part of it, yeah … Oh, my goodness.”
On meeting her Military Training Instructor the first day:
“We were stunned. The MTI came out of the barracks, looked inside the bus, then said, ‘I’m not supposed to have any damn females,’ and walked back in. We didn’t know what to do, it was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ Of course, that was our welcome to Lackland.
“The emotional part of basic wasn’t bad for me. I’d been on my own for a while, so basic didn’t affect me that much psychologically. Truth is, I had a chip on my shoulder.
“We had to display our stuff at night, like towels and personal things. Well, my buddy and I had pulled KP, and we didn’t have time to launder properly. And I told the MTI that in no uncertain terms, sort of like ‘get off my back’ sort of thing. OK, so I’m sent downstairs to be recycled out, but they sent me back upstairs to complete my basic training. The MTI wasn’t very happy. That chip on my shoulder almost cost me a career.”
Recalling her other training, Demers-Aiello said:
“Half of the confidence course — some say obstacle course — was closed due to weather, so that wasn’t much of a challenge. I did OK with an M-16 on the rifle range and later qualified as an expert. I was also guaranteed a job in ground radio, and I actually got it.”
Kessler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi:
“I was sent to Kessler AFB for Tech School, about nine months of electronics courses. I really liked electronics. We started with 13 in the class; we lost eight. Only five graduated, two were female. It was pretty tough, but I just took it one course at a time and did OK. We had good instructors and good subject matter.”
Asked why she chose electronics, Demers-Aiello replied, “During basic training, we recruits would volunteer to take a lot of tests for possible placements, basically to get out of training for a day. I scored really well in electronics without even trying, so my first choice was just that, electronics.”
Clark AFB in the Philippines:
“Yep, straight out of Tech School to an overseas assignment. Clark AFB was huge, and hot, and it was my first time outside of the USA. I learned the culture, did a few things I shouldn’t have done, but survived the duty.
“We went off-base to Angeles City often and a friend of mine had access to a Jeep. We’d drive off base and go up in the mountains; that was really cool. On one trip we saw an old couple trudging up the mountain, so we gave them a lift. They didn’t speak one word of English and we didn’t speak their dialect, but when we dropped them off, the woman gave me a handmade neckless with a cross on it. I still have it; I’m wearing it today.”
Demers-Aiello’s tour in the Philippines lasted two and a half years. She was assigned to the 1961st Communications Squadron and worked near the airfield repairing aircraft communications equipment.
“I also worked on electronic equipment in the control tower, radar and radios. I liked it. Maintaining electronic equipment didn’t bother me at all. I was usually the only female, but that didn’t bother me, either. I’m very proud of my service.”
Warner Robins AFB:
“After my Philippines duty, I was assigned to the 5th (Mobility) for the next seven and a half years. That was a big change. I liked the Philippines, but it was nice to be back in America. That didn’t last too long, however. I was deployed pretty quickly to Saudi Arabia, my first of three assignments to that country.”
On Saudi Arabia:
“The first assignment to Saudi Arabia was right after Desert Storm. I stayed for six months, keeping communications security equipment operating properly. I was very proficient at it. Of course, being female, I wasn’t supposed to drive. Shoot, I just pulled my hat over my head and trucked on.”
“When we had the opportunity to go downtown, I’d tell the guys not to let the religious police, the Muhtasib, get near me. (The Muhtasib is part of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.) And I was serious about that. I had to wear an abaya, a head cover in public. I told the guys, ‘Don’t let them touch me’ because my first reaction would be to hit back … so four or five guys would always escort me in public.”
Comparing the Philippines to Saudi Arabia:
“Well, I consider myself a strong woman; I don’t put up with very much, so the culture in Saudi Arabia was a big problem for me. One time I forgot my abaya and tried to be extra careful. It didn’t work. A Muhtasib spotted me … ‘Tell her to cover head, tell her to cover head!’ One of the guys escorted me back to the truck; we couldn’t stay. I was there in the 1990s, so I don’t know if things have changed, but we were told the Saudi women were treated like queens in their homes. Who cares? That’s not for me. I have to get out and do things, queen or no queen, and I’ll wear a baseball hat if I want to, thank you very much.”
Back to Warner Robins:
“I pulled duty in a couple of different squadrons but spent the majority of my time assigned to the 52nd Communications Group. It was interesting; I enjoyed it. I remember we were on one exercise and setting up chemical tents when this new 2nd lieutenant came over and offered his help, ‘Let me give you a boost.’ Shoot, he almost threw me over the tent. Sort of funny.
“What wasn’t funny was wearing chemical suits in 100-degree heat during a sizzling hot South Georgia summer. Another time during an (Operational Readiness Inspection) we were wearing our chemical suits when the ‘all clear’ sounded. Well, I couldn’t wait to get out of that chemical suit. I pulled the mask off and an inspector was standing right beside me. He took a photo. I don’t know if he reported me for ‘removing my equipment’ too quickly or if he thought I was cute. I couldn’t have cared less; I was too hot.”
Demers-Aiello was deployed to Saudi Arabia every other year:
“I went to the same place every time. The second time was better. We stayed in some buildings built for the nomadic Bedouins, but they wouldn’t stay in the buildings because they faced the wrong direction, according to their religion. So, we got an air-conditioned, five-bedroom villa. Actually, the villas were darn cold.”
When teased about sandstorms being fun, Demers-Aiello replied, “No, they were not! Soon as you got back to the villa, you hit the shower. Sand was everywhere, a fine, sugar-like sand that gets into everything, especially the equipment. But that said and done, after a shower we’d go outside to play volleyball. You could say we played ‘real’ sand volleyball. I loved playing volleyball, all the time. We drank near-beer, no alcohol, and played in shorts and T-shirts. Then we’d go back inside and take another shower.”
Male and female relationships in the military:
“I had excellent relationships, no harassment, none of this man versus woman stuff you hear about. Yeah, a dude is a dude, but you’re on deployment and comradeship is a must.”
Back to Warner Robins:
“Well, that didn’t last long, either. In just a short time, I was en route to Encirlik AFB in Turkey, still maintaining base communications equipment, radios, the same old stuff, but a huge cultural change from Saudi Arabia. We could go downtown without problems, and I fell in love with ekmegi (Turkey flatbread). Oh, my gosh, baked in ovens and covered with garlic and butter. … To die for, which I thought I was doing until I found out I was pregnant. Boy, was I sick; so sick I was hospitalized and given bag after bag of vitamins and minerals. We had housemaids on base, local women. I hired one about my age to stay with my little girl, Laura, until I came home from work. I had my first child at 30 years of age, the first of four girls.”
Along comes No. 2:
“Well, 16 months later, I’m pregnant again with Jennifer. They had closed the birthing center in Turkey so I was flown to Landstuhl Military Hospital in Germany. So, there you go, a Turkey baby and a Germany baby. Welcome to the military. I was in Turkey for about three years.”
Tinker AFB, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:
“Yep, Turkey to Tinker, doing the same thing but more ground-to-air activity. I didn’t care much for Tinker, probably because of the big tornado that came through while I was there. I was at Tinker for about two years and made tech sergeant.”
What started in Texas ended in Texas:
“I took basic training at Lackland AFB and ended my last nine and a half years in the Air Force at Lackland AFB, once again in base communications. San Antonio had exploded, grown too big and crowded and too busy for me. But, on a deployment to Kuwait, I met my present husband. He was Army; I was Air Force, and I was on a deployment with over 20 years of service.
“I experienced my first combat landing while stationed in Kuwait. We were in Kuwait and had to fly into Baghdad, Iraq, to train and work on equipment that detected IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). The C-130 took off the normal way, but when we reached Baghdad the pilot went into a combat landing, corkscrewing into the airport. Oh, my gosh, my stomach was in my throat, and I turned 12 shades of green, sweating profusely. I was the only Air Force personnel on the plane, the rest were Army, and the Army guys were sort of pushing away from me in case I had to upchuck.
“My future husband was on the plane and kept asking me, ‘You OK, you OK? Do you want this air-sick bag over here?’ I lied, and said, ‘I’m OK.’ Yeah, right. I didn’t upchuck, but don’t know how I avoided doing so.”
“Well, Baghdad freaked me out a little bit. As you may know, the Air Force doesn’t train people to listen to bombs or other stuff going off. I’m toting an M-16 wherever I went, and one day in the dining facility the intercom suddenly blared out, ‘Incoming, incoming,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What the heck do I do now?’ I glanced at my future husband and his Army buddies; they just kept on eating. So, I did the same thing.”
Demers-Aiello returned to Kuwait to finish her tour. Two weeks after returning to Kuwait, the same dining facility in Bagdad took a direct hit, killing two and wounding several more.
Her future husband returned stateside two months ahead of Demers-Aiello and awaited her return. She eventually came home. The couple married on Aug. 8, 2008. Demers-Aiello retired after serving her country for 25 years as a master sergeant. The couple had previously visited Toccoa, Tallulah Falls, Helen and other North Georgia communities. They settled on Cleveland, above the “gnat line,” as Demers-Aiello claimed. The couple had two more girls, Gabriella and Sarafina. Demers-Aiello now works for the local post office.
Her closing remarks:
“You know, I love the North Georgia Mountains, and I love my family, but I miss the Air Force. I mean, being around your family is cool and stuff, but your military family is just so different. The camaraderie was great. It’s hard to explain; only veterans understand. There’s a bond with the people you meet and work with, a togetherness that is hard to replace. It didn’t matter if you’re in a war zone or not, you are there for each other. And you train well, you do your job to the best of your ability, or people get hurt.”