University of Wyoming alum Susan Pamerleau has accomplished more than most—the rank of major general in the U.S. Air Force, military adviser to NATO, the first woman to command the Air Force ROTC and the Air Force Personnel Center, and sheriff of the 19th most populous county in the U.S. But it's her service that she's most proud of.
“I’m passionate about service to my community, being able to make an impact,” says Pamerleau. “Every day I come to work, I know I can do something good for this community.”
It’s no wonder. Pamerleau grew up in a loving family, and her father is a minister. She was immersed in an atmosphere of service. Her realization soon after she joined the Air Force in 1968 that she was part of something much larger prompted her lifetime dedication to the service of others.
From 1988 to 2000, Pamerleau served on Air Force bases across the country and around the world in high-level positions in personnel, resource allocation and support, including on the international military staff at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
During this time, she served as commander of the Air Force Personnel Center in Washington, D.C., overseeing 520,000 military and civilian personnel worldwide. She was the first woman commander of Air Force ROTC, responsible for more than 1,200 officer, enlisted and civilian personnel educating approximately 12,000 Air Force ROTC cadets at more than 900 colleges and universities.
During the course of her career, Pamerleau earned the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, among others.
She also earned—in addition to her bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Wyoming—an MPA from Golden Gate University and has attended the Wharton School, the JFK School of Government at Harvard, and the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern. She received an honorary doctorate from Phillips University and is an Outstanding Alumna from the UW College of Arts and Sciences.
After 32 years in the Air Force, Pamerleau retired but she continued to serve the needs of military families as senior vice president of the United Services Automobile Association, which provides financial services for military families. She retired in 2007, only to be asked to run for public office just three years later in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas.
Her first foray into politics against a 12-year incumbent was a close race, missing by just a few points. Just two years later, she ran a vigorous campaign against a seasoned incumbent, and is now sheriff of Bexar County, Texas (pronounced bear). Bexar County includes San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the U.S., and 25 other cities and municipalities. Pamerleau oversees a $105 million budget and 1,800 employees.
“You’ve got to be a hands-on leader,” Pamerleau says. “In this kind of an organization, it starts by setting the direction, setting the vision.”
However, Pamerleau overcame challenges throughout her career.
First is her groundbreaking service as a woman in the military. In 1967, Public Law 90-130 changed the nature of the armed forces by allowing more women to join. Before that, U.S. law had limited the number of women in the military to 2 percent and the highest rank for a woman to that of lieutenant colonel. Consequently, the military began actively recruiting women.
In November of that year, a recruiter made the rounds of UW sorority houses to talk about opportunities in the Air Force, and Pamerleau and three of her sorority sisters decided to join. Of the four, Pamerleau was the only one to graduate from officer training school. “The opportunities for women were very limited when I went in, but I didn’t have a clue about that kind of thing,” says Pamerleau.
There was some precedent for military service in Pamerleau’s family, but not a lot—her uncles has served in the military in World War II, and her father’s twin brother had been a German POW.
Second, Pamerleau’s brother Michael was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1960s, and he died tragically when he was struck by a car on the street.
Third, in the 1970s Pamerleau survived seven years of abuse and domestic violence at the hands of her husband. He committed suicide on the day she left him. “I would have been dead at the age of 32,” says Pamerleau.
Throughout her long and distinguished career across the world, she’s maintained her Wyoming connection.
While serving at NATO headquarters in Belgium, she and a young intern were sitting at a sidewalk café. She told the intern, “The next honest person who walks by, we’ll ask him to take a picture.” Coincidently, that next person was wearing a Wyoming sweater and turned out to be David Nicholas, a lawyer from Laramie who served as Department of Defense’s adviser to the U.S. mission to NATO.
“So, for the next 3 1/2 years,” Susan says, “we worked in different parts of NATO but we saw each other often, and we jokingly referred to ourselves as 67 percent of the Wyoming contingent in NATO.”
And because service is so important to Pamerleau, she continues to serve Wyoming and its university in other ways, including as a member of the UW Foundation Board. Not only that, she has taken the unprecedented step of creating a bequest that will support scholarships for all UW Air Force ROTC students in good standing. That’s approximately 50 students per year, but as many as 100. Air Force ROTC cultivates academic and leadership excellence in young people, she says.
“What a great way to support my school—my alma mater—and
also ROTC, which is a very important program,” Pamerleau says. “What a great
way of leaving a legacy to the future—of Wyoming, of the University of Wyoming,
of the United States Air Force, and of our nation.”