When Heather Allen’s father retired from the Air Force and the family moved to Wisconsin, it wound up being a change of address that would take her to many far off lands, where, among other things, she would find herself talking via secure radio to a downed Air Force pilot in Kosovo while rescue help was on its way.
After growing up in Victorville, California (pop. 200,000), living in a much smaller town in Wisconsin was a big culture shock. As a 19-year old, Allen knew she wanted more than a Midwest small town could offer.
“My options at the time were school or work,” she said. “I chose work initially and got hired by Coca-Cola to work in a recycling facility. I tried school but after seven months and one class I realized two things. One, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college and two, I didn’t like being where I was.”
With her dad as inspiration, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. She was sent to San Antonio, Texas for basic training after going in with an “open, general” classification for her future military job. She took an aptitude test which showed she scored at or above in all categories.
The result: she was assigned to training in Air Force Intelligence. Following basic training she attended “Intel” school in San Angelo, Texas, a move that allowed her to miss certain dreaded boot camp chores as KP (kitchen patrol) and running obstacle courses.
As an Intel trainee she continued to excel academically and was chosen to be an Element Leader, the equivalent of a dormitory head resident in college, with definite military regulations.
“I was in charge of 10 people,” she said. “If they screwed up on anything, I got yelled at.”
Leadership training had begun.
She spent four months in San Angelo learning as much as possible about everything Air Force. Cryptography, deciphering coded things, became a favorite course of study.
“Cryptography is kind of like taking a lot of data and putting it together like a big puzzle. It was definitely something I liked doing.”
Following school in San Angelo, she was sent back to San Antonio where she was assigned to the 93rd Intel Squadron. Instead of recycling Coke materials she was now in a job that as a career had 12 different jobs rolled into one.
Her first assignment abroad was in Germany at a joint Army-Air Force base at Rhein Mann. While in Germany, with her second enlistment coming up, she met Eric, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. It was then she made the decision to forego a second enlistment to avoid being sent back to the States, allowing her to remain with Eric.
While she was on active duty, she took part in the classified end of many major battles, including the American involvement in Kosovo, a break-away republic of the former Yugoslavia. Her job at the time was to collect and analyze data from many sources.
“I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you,” she said, smiling about the need for secrecy in her work.
She was also assigned to be part of the secure radio network that connected her directly with the cockpit of American warplanes as they carried out a variety of missions. She often was in contact with U-2 pilots flying the famous spy planes that gathered battlefield data.
At that time she was stationed in Italy, working as part of the NATO operation.
On one occasion she maintained radio contact with a pilot who had just been shot down, keeping him in contact with Air Force and other military Intel organizations.
“While in Kosovo and Italy I could see how everything I learned was an important part of the overall military effort,” she said.
Allen continued those duties while transferred to other Air Force installations, including South Korea. “We kept a pretty good eye on the North Koreans,” she said.
She wound up attaining the rank of E-5 and left the service with no regrets at all.
“I would do it all over again,” she said. “I actually would have liked to go to Australia but the nature of that assignment meant that once I was there I would stay there until I was discharged or retired.” Details are confidential.
Instead, she and Eric decided, after being together in the Netherlands until Eric was discharged, to return to Eric’s native Montana.
A Livingston native, Eric longed for the open spaces and mountains of the Treasure State. They looked around and finally decided on planting roots in Plains.
“Eric wanted to go back to Livingston, but one day the wind was blowing here in Plains and he said it reminded him of how often and how hard the wind blows in Livingston.”
Since relocating to Plains, Allen has become the Quarter Master of the local VFW.
Eric recently returned from an overseas assignment doing sensitive work for U.S. military radar and detection equipment as a civilian employee.