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Reserve airman escorts WASP during historic ceremony

Two generations of service trade stories during time together

Josephine Swift, right, a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot, embraces Tech. Sgt. Heather Normand, a loadmaster from the 728th Airlift Squadron from JBLM-McChord Field in front of the U.S. Capitol after being presented the Congressional Gold Medal March 10

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With a grandfather and mother who were also loadmasters in the 446th Airlift Wing, Tech. Sgt. Heather Normand knows all about the close bond service in the military can forge between airmen and those who've served before them.

But nothing could have fully prepared her for the experience of serving as an escort for Seattle resident Josephine Swift, a Women's Airforce Service Pilot from World War II who was among a group of WASPs and representatives of deceased WASPs awarded a Congressional Gold Medal March 10 in Washington, D.C.

The WASPs were a trailblazing group of 1,102 civilian female pilots, the first to fly military aircraft under the direction of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Nearly 70 years ago, the WASPs ferried across the continental United States fighter, bomber, transport and training aircraft and performed other missions to help defend America's freedom.

Normand, a loadmaster with the 728th Airlift Squadron at JBLM-McChord Field, was one of four airmen from the 446th AW chosen to serve as a host for the event.

"I was pretty excited," said Normand, who'd briefly met the 90-year-old Swift once before at an event at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. "I knew (the WASPs) were pretty peppy, and she was all piss and vinegar. We got along just fine."

The pair spent the good part of nearly two days together at the festivities surrounding the ceremony, bonding over aviation, legacies and life in the Air Force.

One afternoon at lunch, as a conversation with a server steered toward Swift and her accomplishments, the 90-year-old steered it back to Normand and how many different types of cargo she's delivered to different locations all around the world.

"She kept deflecting the questions," said the 33-year-old Tacoma resident. "What I did impressed her so much. She was too modest."

What impressed Normand perhaps the most about Swift was her ability to recall names and faces, even after so many years had passed from the time she saw some of the other WASPs.

"The camaraderie (the WASPs formed) was pretty outstanding," the reservist said. "It was unlike anything I've seen before. It was instant recognization. They picked up like 1945 was just last year."

During the ceremony - which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi described as the largest crowd ever inside of the Capitol - more than 2,500 people celebrated as Deanie Bishop Parish, a WASP from Class 44-W4, accepted the gold medal from the Speaker of the House and other members of Congress.

Normand presented Swift her medal on the steps of the Capitol in front of 17 members of her family.

"I just told her what kind of an impact her career had on my life," Normand said. "I said she laid the groundwork for that. They cried and that made me cry."

According to information released by the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, fewer than 300 WASP survive today and though they reside in 41 different states, the vast majority live in California (89), followed closely by Texas (32), Florida (26) and Arizona (12).

Information from an Air Force article was used in this story.

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