Coming full circle

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

“One day, the sun will set on my time and rise with you as the new king.”—Mufasa, “The Lion King”

Most Disney fans are familiar with the “circle of life” theme from “The Lion King.” While the film’s theme revolves around life and death, many life aspects tend to come full circle. People often find themselves in the positions of people they once admired.

Such is the case for 2nd Lt. Amy Gillilan, 50th Space Wing Program Management Directorate, who, after a long enlisted career, now finds herself in the position to mentor young Airmen. Just as her mentors helped her.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my mentors,” she said. “Your job ethic gets you a long way in life, and how hard you work is going to get you a long way, but having people guide you is essential.”

Gillilan’s career mentorship began before enlistment as her father steered her towards an Air Force career. Even though he retired from the Army, he knew the Air Force would be a better decision for her.

“He guided me to the world’s greatest Air Force,” Gillilan said.

Initially assigned as a command post controller at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2003, Gillilan soon went from flight following from behind closed doors to actually witnessing the mission as she deployed to Kuwait in 2004 with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The deployment left a lasting impression.

“It’s a very humbling experience to be on a flightline during 9/11 (remembrance ceremonies),” she said through tears. “It’s tough to be there and humbling, (but) what an honoring experience.”

Following a second deployment to Iraq in 2006, Gillilan returned to Charleston facing a career crossroads. She had to choose between becoming a loadmaster or a flight attendant. Again relying on advice from her mentors, Gillilan chose the flight attendant path.

“The mentorship at Charleston was essential in guiding me to an aviation career,” she said.

This choice would set her on a path leading all the way to Air Force One.

The road wasn’t easy. The flight attendant selection process itself is a rigorous, weeklong process. Candidates spend the week in Washington, D.C., attending events, learning the mission, visiting aircraft, and preparing and cooking a meal. Finally, candidates sit before a board that will determine final selections.

“They want to see how you interact with others, work on a team and your ability to work in the culinary arts,” Gillilan said.

Upon selection, she began as a flight attendant serving representatives and senators. After three years, she decided to apply for a position with the presidential team. Once selected, Gillilan went through an advanced culinary school.

The joint school at Fort Lee, Virginia, is part culinary school and part basic training. The instructors sharpen students by creating stressful situations. The goal is to ensure students are ready to face any circumstance with calm.

“It allows you to react when you’re on the airplane in a stressful situation,” Gillilan said. “Once the wheels are up you can’t change any previous decision you made. If you brought it, you brought it. If you forgot it, you better learn how to recover from it.”

Gillilan joined the presidential team in 2012, during President Obama’s re-election campaign. She spent four years serving aboard Air Force One, beginning by serving drinks and working her way up to the forward galley cook. The forward galley cook is responsible for planning and preparing the president’s meals. To say the position comes with a fair amount of pressure would be an understatement.

“Perfection is the standard because you’re serving the president of the United States,” Gillilan said. “That’s a huge weight to carry.”

While carrying that weight, Gillilan continued working toward her degree in management. She took advantage of any opportunity to complete her coursework, even giving up a chance to visit the Vatican.

“We were sitting in Rome and a majority of the team went to the Vatican,” she said. “There were four people left behind. We were sitting downstairs at this hotel, drinking cappuccinos and every one of us was pumping out papers.”

Gillilan met one of her mentors in August 2013 during a stop at Martha’s Vineyard. Lt. Col. Carl Miller, 12th Flying/Training Wing Inspector General, was working as part of the advance team handling logistics for the presidential crew members. Miller soon discovered one of Gillilan’s career goals was to become an officer.

“We talked about timelines, applications and what it would take to get (to officer training school),” Miller said. “I provided advice, answered questions and did anything I could to help her through the process.”

After two unsuccessful applications to officer training school, she thought being an officer wasn’t in the cards for her. Miller and other mentors provided the encouragement and guidance to try one more time.

“March 12, 2016, I had my last flight on Air Force One. The commander brought me a set of lieutenant bars before we took off,” she said, again fighting the moment’s emotion.

Now as a new lieutenant, Gillilan is learning how to be an officer, but she knows she’s in a place where she can draw on her 13 years as an enlisted member to help young Airmen at Schriever.

“I know I didn’t put on lieutenant bars because I was amazing,” she said. “I had people looking out for me. In turn, I feel like that’s my gift back to the Air Force. How can I help Airmen?”

Gillilan often speaks during First Term Airmen Center classes, offering advice and guidance for young Airmen looking for opportunities. She knows without guidance from her mentors, she might never have been able to take advantage of the opportunities the Air Force offers.

Miller knows the depth and breadth of experience Gillilan has can benefit those looking for guidance, but it’s her personality that will make her a good mentor.

“She has empathy for people, wants to inspire people and help people,” he said. “She has a strong sense of duty and wants to pay (mentorship) forward.”

“I would never have had any of these opportunities if somebody hadn’t told me about them,” Gillilan said.

The sun, it certainly appears, has risen on Gillilan’s time as mentor. Miller hopes Gillilan’s passion for the Air Force spreads to the Airmen she mentors.

“She believes in what she does, is all-in and loves the Air Force,” he said. “When you get someone who is really passionate about what they do, that kind of attitude is contagious.”