Flexibility is the Key to Air Power
Hero’s Bridge shares its office floor with the Arc of North Central Virginia and recently learned that their “suitemate”, the executive director of the nonprofit, served ten years in the Air Force. A decade that, as it turned out, helped to shape her future role as an advocate.

Marilyn McCombe, The Arc of NCV Executive Director, was raised with the saying Flexibility is the key to air power. Her father, Master Sergeant, Samuel Bauer, played the baritone horn in the U.S. Air Force Band, Ceremonial Unit. His schedule frequently included playing for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, inaugurations, and ceremonial White House events.

Marilyn followed in her father’s footsteps. “Like my dad, I was very strong in math. Because of his career in the Air Force, when a recruitment officer came to my high school, I paid attention and explored my options.”

When she announced she would attend the University of Virginia on an ROTC scholarship, her father was very supportive. The scholarship covered 100% of her room and board in exchange for four years of Air Force service after graduation.

“My years in the Air Force set the foundation of work ethic that I lean on every day,” she said. For Marilyn, the military taught her to focus on the mission and teamwork.

She was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force in May 1989 and was first saluted by her father.

“Although I filled out my Dream Sheet, I didn’t get any of those assignments. For my first assignment, I went to Moody AFB in Georgia where I worked in Supply. But it was ok because in many ways there was nowhere to go but up from there,” said Marilyn.

According to Marilyn, Southern Georgia was filled with big bugs, big heat, big challenges, and also the best mentors a new officer could have asked for.

The Meaning of Service
The Gulf War, Desert Shield followed by Desert Storm, started in August of 1990, almost exactly one year into her military service. “In a heartbeat, it brought the real meaning of military service to me,” she said. Being in Supply, Marilyn was responsible for the distribution of “mobility bags” containing gas masks and other necessary equipment for deployment.

The base participated in many extended training exercises to prepare for deployment. “It was a highly stressful time for many in the military, and particularly for me and my family as we waited and wondered what was next and whether I would be deployed. In the end, I helped to equip much of the base for deployment, but was not tasked to deploy,” she said.

In the Fall of 1992, she was accepted to attend AFIT (Air Force Institute of Technology) based at Wright Patterson AFB, OH, and earned her master’s degree in operations research. This added four years of commitment to the Air Force. With the degree completed, Marilyn was finally assigned a destination on her dream sheet–Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs.

There Marilyn worked as a data analyst and on the testing team that evaluated missile warning systems in the vault at Cheyenne Mountain AFB near the base of Pike’s Peak. Part of her work was to run simulations to test the effectiveness of warning systems in the event of a missile attack.

She married in 1995 and worked as a cadet data analyst at the Air Force Academy for the remainder of her time in the Air Force. Just three months before the birth of her second daughter, Marilyn, left the Air Force after 10 years of service.

Her military service loaded her toolbox for her next career as a mother and advocate. “We didn’t know Jenna had Down syndrome until after she was born. Everything I learned in the military proved to be useful as an advocate for Jenna,” she said.

The Next Chapter
For the last 24 years, Marilyn has found herself in leadership roles advocating for inclusion rights for both her daughter and every other child with disabilities. “I am extremely grateful for the forward-thinking people and inclusive programs in Colorado that built my foundation for understanding the world of ‘disabilities’ and how to support people with disabilities. They set the bar high for what I expected for Jenna.”

Marilyn finds parallels between her life today and those early years in ROTC. “I didn’t necessarily want to be in visible leadership positions, but I often had the tools required to fill the roles and became the right fit.”

Running simulations in Cheyenne helped prepare Marilyn for life. “It’s important to practice drills to prepare if something happens, but sometimes you just have to roll with it.”

Hero’s Bridge encourages everyone to take the time to discover the military experiences of those around you.