Breaking the Stereotype: Tutus to takedowns
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Air Force Security forces personnel exist to secure, defend and fight. Their responsibilities include protecting some of the world’s most potentially lethal weapons, securing air bases around the globe and handling combat arms. The kind of person who aspires to become an Air Force defender might be passionate about criminal justice, or attracted to danger or practice… ballet?
Standing a little over 5 feet, with the typical petite, slender and poised stature of a dancer, Staff Sgt. Kiirsten Gunterman,374th Security Forces Squadron training instructor, practiced ballet for 17 years before she joined the Air Force. With her passion for dance and her role as a defender, personnel like Gunterman demonstrate that in the Air Force there are always those who will break stereotypes. Whether male or female, ballerina or mechanic, drive and attitude are what make an Airman.
“People expected me to fail,” Gunterman said.
Before she joined, Gunterman visited recruiters from every branch. After watching an Air Force recruiting video about Security Forces, she decided the job was perfect and signed to be a cop.
“When I joined the military it surprised a lot of people,” Gunterman said as she looked toward the ceiling, reaching back to memories of her senior high school year in Chico, California. “I was the dancer, I did cheerleading and other things. People were saying ‘Does she know what she just signed up for?’ Now here I am, a military police officer.”
According to Gunterman, joining the military may have been a leap of faith but she embraced where it lead her.
“I definitely made the right decision joining the Air Force,” Gunterman said without hesitation. “Having my airmen is my favorite part. I didn’t think it would be but it’s really rewarding to see your airmen succeed. And to have them come up to you and say ‘Thank you for being the way you are,’ it hits you right in the heart.”
“Exuberance,” said Senior Airman Ryan Vanicek said with a smile when asked to describe her.
Vanicek, who is a 374 SFS unit scheduler, said he looks to Gunterman not only as his supervisor but as a role model. While firm, she does not come off as gruff in any way. Rather, Gunterman is endlessly enthusiastic.
“If I had to describe Staff Sgt. Kiirstyn Gunterman in a couple of words, another would be fierce,” Vanicek said lightheartedly but with conviction. “Her presence is strong. You always know when she is in a room.”
Gunterman says she loves her job. She spoke with energy about the study opportunities, the people she has met and the places she has been. Yet, in younger years, Gunterman never would have expected to end up where she is today.
“I had every intention of moving to the east coast and going to the college of my dreams and dancing with the New York Ballet Company,” Gunterman said. “That was gonna be my life.”
When Gunterman talks about dance and the dancers she admires, she becomes energized by thoughts of beauty and creativity.
“I think dance is really beautiful,” Gunterman said, her brown eyes turning to the side to follow her imagination. “When you see a dancer put their heart and soul into a piece, you can feel it. If someone loves what they’re doing and the story they’re telling, it becomes art that’s living, breathing and fluid. I think it’s one of the most beautiful art forms there is.”
Before graduating high school, Gunterman experienced events that changed the way she saw the world.
“When I was 16 my parents split up and my outlook on the world changed a little bit,” Gunterman said and paused briefly before continuing. “I made some changes but I love my life now.”
While hunting for a new direction, Gunterman turned to the Air Force: a branch she’d admired since she was young.
“I’d always thought of the Air Force as the best of the best,” Gunterman said. “They were the innovators, doing the big things in the world, and I wanted to do big things in the world. I said ‘I wanna go make change.’”
The young woman set out to become a defender, yet, the journey wasn’t easy from the start. Though years of dance had built her strength, Basic Military Training challenged her with 40 minute runs that required the kind of cardio stamina she simply didn’t have.
However, Gunterman pressed on, became an Airman, trained and learned. She pressed on through days where she began to doubt her decision.
“It was raining, 30 degrees, standing outside guarding a nuclear weapon and I was like ‘This sucks!’” Gunterman said, her eyes widening. “There were times in Colorado, in negative 17 degrees, standing at the gate and checking identification cards. You start to fantasize about what could have been.”
According to Gunterman, never was her self-drive more challenged than when she volunteered to become a Combatives instructor.
All SFS personnel have to stay current in techniques, largely based on jiu-jitsu ground fighting, which allow them to subdue an individual without taking or causing injuries. They practice these techniques in a class called Combatives.
“When I started learning to be an instructor, I didn’t think I could do it,” Gunterman said. “It whooped my butt. I’ve never been that sore in my entire life.”
Gunterman experienced mental and physical exhaustion in a class where she was the only female. Larger classmates continually defeated her and yet, by the end of the class, she learned to overcome them.
“Doing ballet taught me discipline,” Gunterman said. “They give you a task and you have to keep doing it and doing it to perfect it, no matter how much your feet bleed or your legs hurt. I knew people were relying on me to perfect that task because I needed to know it for a piece or a competition.”
Though Gunterman may have doubted herself at times and others may have seen her as an unlikely candidate for the military or SFS, none of that ever made this ballerina-cop quit.
“I’ve had people along the way tell me ‘You’re too girly’ or ‘This career field doesn’t seem too right for you,’ Gunterman said. “But I’ve made it my own experience. My outlook is, ‘you’re not getting out of life alive so you may as well have a good time with it. It sucks being in 17 degree weather but tomorrow I may not be. Or here I am checking IDs but if I wasn’t here these people couldn’t come on base and go to their homes.’”
Gunterman’s determination has made an impression on others too.
“She has never been one to be told something can't be done,” Vanicek said. “I have watched her many times find a way even if she had to make a way. On the other side of the coin, she is compassionate and cares for her subordinates, to include myself. She is empowering, I have grown more as an Airman during my time with her than probably any other time in my career.”
Perhaps it should have been apparent from the moment Gunterman decided to be a cop that she would become one and a good one. Being a ballerina didn’t mean she couldn’t handle SFS. In fact, it built her physical, mental and emotional discipline.
“I think that women get a bad rap sometimes,” Gunterman said. “I think we get underestimated a little in every branch.”
When Gunterman was asked what she would say to other young women who may be intimidated about joining the Air Force, she considered her response carefully.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith,” Gunterman said. “People in the Air Force won’t let you fall flat on your face. Everyone wants you to succeed. This is a family. Why not to the next adventure? I started my life in Chico, California, and now I’m here. I can’t wait for the next adventure that comes.”
So far, Gunterman’s drive and her attitude have carried her to where she is today and made her what she is: a dancer and a hell of an Airman.