Patriotism Runs in the Family

Women In Blue:A Mother’s Legacy to Her Daughter

As far back as Dana (Spomer) Cortez can remember, her mother has always worn blue. When she was a little girl, her mom did something, something so out of the ordinary that few could believe it. When other kids’ moms were baking cookies for the PTA bake sale or driving the neighborhood carpool, Dana’s was raising her right hand and promising to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Dana was just four years old when her mother donned the Air Force’s blue uniform.

Just why a mother of two would opt to wear the uniform of the Oklahoma Air National Guard (OK ANG) surely must have puzzled many who knew her at the time. But for Dana’s mother, Rita Aragon, service in the air guard made a lot of sense. A single mother of two little girls, Aragon worked three jobs but still couldn’t make ends meet. By day she was an award-winning grade-school teacher, by night she stood at the counter at McDonalds and on weekends she could be found working as the secretary at her church. No amount of hard work and determination–and Aragon had plenty of both–seemed to be enough.

“My children’s father wasn’t paying child support and I needed to do something,” she says, “and it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Col. Rita Aragon, OK ANG. Photo courtesy of Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, OK ANG. At the urging of a church elder, who was a member of the OK ANG, Aragon decided to enlist. Though she was a good 10 years older than a lot of the guardsmen she went through basic training with, this determined young woman knew the military could offer her something her other three jobs couldn’t–financial security and the chance to build a second career without giving up her beloved teaching. Best of all, this second job would give her more free time to spend with her girls.

The decision to join was an easy one, but the transition to military life had its share of difficulties for Aragon. The first one came when she had to give temporary custody of Dana and her sister to her mom, Jimmie Bly, so that she could complete basic training.

“I thought my heart would break without my babies,” Aragon remembers. “Basic training taught me that you can do anything you have to do.”

She did it and did it well. Following basic at Lackland AFB, TX, this new airman resumed teaching K-7 in the Oklahoma public schools, eventually becoming a principal, and she worked as a draftsman apprentice during her drill weekends. Hard work and determination proved to be the recipe for success for Aragon. Within two and a half years, she attended the Academy of Military Science in Knoxville, TN, the Air National Guard’s commissioning program, and received her commission as a second lieutenant. She had found the security for which she was looking.

“I joined for the financial security but I fell in love with the mission and the people,” she says. “It was like having 1,000 big brothers looking out for me and my girls. I loved it then and I still love it now.”

After nearly 30 years in blue, the now major general has quite a resume. She became the OK ANG’s first woman commander when she assumed command of the 137th Services Flight at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in 1989, the first woman brigadier general in the OK ANG and the first woman commander of the OK ANG, both in 2003. A highly decorated military officer, Maj. Gen. Aragon has also seen her share of tough duty, including service as the mortuary officer for the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing recovery in 1995 and deployments for Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Along the way, Maj. Gen. Aragon has created a legacy. It is a legacy she eventually shared with her oldest daughter Dana when she, too, donned the Air Force blue uniform in 1995.

Lt. Col. Rita Aragon administers the oath of enlistment to her daughter Dana, Aug. 20, 1995. Photo courtesy of Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, OK ANG. “I was very excited when my daughter joined,” says the general. “It’s been a wonderful bonding experience for us. Knowing how hard basic can be, I wrote to her every day she was away.”

In addition to the opportunity to gain job training and experience, Dana joined the OK ANG for one of the same reasons her mom did, financial assistance. Then 20-year-old Dana wanted to pursue a career in the medical field and she thought the air guard would be a good way to break into the field and get financial help for college. Like her mother before her, she started out as an airman basic and worked her way up through the ranks, eventually obtaining a commission herself.

During her 11 years in the OK ANG, Dana found just what she was looking for. She became an emergency flight medical technician, a job she held for seven years before realizing her dream of becoming a physician’s assistant (PA). With the help of military tuition benefits, Dana, who eventually achieved the rank of captain, graduated with a master’s degree from Oklahoma University’s PA program in 2001.

Amn Dana (Spomer) Cortez, Jan. 1996. Photo courtesy of Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, OK ANG. Like her mom, Dana thinks their shared military experience has been great. “I could never be so presumptuous as to say that I have followed in my mother’s footsteps–I couldn’t keep up,” Dana says. “We’ve always had a close bond, and of course, being in the military is quite a bonding experience.” Mom and daughter also share another special bond. Both are charter members of the Women’s Memorial

Although she remembers her time in the OK ANG as both fulfilling and challenging, Dana left the service in 2006. In addition to her work as a PA at Edmond Physicians in Edmond, OK, she and her husband of nine years, OK ANG TSgt Jimmy Cortez are busy raising their three-year-old daughter Shelby Lorraine.

“I don’t think I will be able to go back to the ANG any time in the near future due to my full-time job,” Dana says. “However, should my job permit, I would like to finish ‘my 20.’”

Today, Maj. Gen. Aragon continues her guard service as the Air National Guard Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff of Staff Manpower and Personnel. She has been happily married to her husband Greg for nearly 25 years, and the two share six children and seven grandchildren.

As for her legacy, the general says that she’s glad she had this special shared experience because she learned a lot from it. “I try to treat each woman I meet in the military like she is my daughter. They need someone to believe in them just as I do my daughter and my daughter does me.”

While Dana now enjoys her civilian life as a wife, a mom and PA, the bond with her mom is stronger than ever. This mother-daughter pair will always be women in blue.

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