Serving two lives
For some families, tradition means ice skating every winter or having Easter dinner at the same restaurant every spring. Della Swails' family's tradition was to serve the country.
At age 17, Swails joined the United States Air Force, following the footsteps of her grandfather and mother into the military. Her oldest son, Christopher Oglevie, now serves as the fourth generation of the family in the armed forces. He is stationed at Edwards Air Force Base as a staff sergeant, and has served for 12 years now. Swails' husband Jon also served in the air force for 27 years.
"It's a family tradition," Swails said. "I didn't want to join the Navy because I get seasick, and I didn't want to be on a boat. I didn't want to join the Army because being a female in the Army back then was hard. Marines were out of the question, so the only one left was the Air Force."
Swails was raised in Gresham, working with her father and siblings in the mechanical field. When she turned 16 she decided she wanted to go into the military — not to be a mechanic, but for the chance at a less hands-on career.
"I couldn't get the grease out of my hands," she explained.
She told the Air Force recruiter she wanted a desk job, and they assigned her as an administrative troop.
"That lasted about 18 months," Swails added. "I could not stand sitting behind a desk."
From there she was trained in firearms, and was soon instructing others on how to use everything from pistols to 50-calibers, preparing troops for the front line.
Helping each other
Swails herself never experienced active combat, and she does wish she had.
"That's one part of my career I wish I had happened," she said. "For the better part of my career I was a single mom, and my superintendent refused to let me go anywhere. So I stayed home as my troops left. You train so much to do a job and then not being able to actually go somewhere and do that job, sometimes it can be disheartening. When the flag is up and you're called to go you, we all want to go and help."
"It's like going to all of the practices and then being benched," her husband Jon Swails added.
Not getting to join her fellow soldiers in battle made her feel she related less to them.
"To have that experience, and be able to relate to your fellow troops with what they experienced over there, that's always a good thing," she noted. "Not having the opportunity to actually experience that, I can relate only so much with them."
But she nevertheless still felt the camaraderie from training and managing soldiers.
"I call it a dysfunctional family," Swails explained. "If you need something — regardless, personal or military-wise — if you need something, that family unit is there. They're always willing to reach out and help. I made so many friends."
Throughout her tenure in the Air Force, Swails has worked her way up to the rank of chief master sergeant — the highest enlisted rank one can achieve — and she manages a 100-person squadron at the Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. "I love what I do," she said. "I'm very fortunate to have made that rank. They only promote, like, 1 percent of the Air Force to chief. What I absolutely love, being back at the unit-level, I have a direct impact on our young troops. I'm in charge of making sure they get all of the training they need. Just watching their careers grow — at this rank it's not about me, it's all about them and getting them where they need to be. That's what's the most fulfilling about the position I'm in."
Over the years, Swails' occupation has taken her overseas a number of times, including to places like Germany and Turkey.
"(In Turkey), being a female — females are treated like second-class citizens in that country — being able to go there was amazing," she said. "Even dealing with the nationals. It never stopped me. When I have a job to do I get it done. There's roadblocks, I find ways around them."
As for in the states, Swails said she has seen the hurdles for women disappear within the military. Less than five percent of the armed forces is exclusively serviced by men now.
"There are some hurdles for a woman, especially in a man-dominated field, but those are slowly being (decreased)," she noted. "A lot of the stereotypic barriers have come down. You just learn to work around them if you come encounter them. Or you break them. I'm good at that."
In her capacity as chief master sergeant at Nellis, Swails spends about six days a month in Nevada. The other 24 or so she spends working in her family's business with her husband, rehabilitating horses.
Swails grew up around the animals, and living at Cedar Creek Stables in Sandy acts as a reprieve for her when she's not managing troops.
"It is two separate lives," Swails said. "For a large portion of my life I've been with horses. They're a lot of work, but they're my sanity check. I can't see my life without them."
When it comes to the stables, Swails' husband is technically in charge, and jokingly tells her "You need to leave the uniform at the door" when she comes home.
The stable will become an increasingly larger part of Swails' life in coming years. As of May 2019, she will have to retire after devoting 33 years of her life to the armed forces.
"Not that I want to retire, but I have to. Over half of my life I've been in the military," she explained. "I wouldn't change it. I've loved every minute of it."