For Irene Berman Overholts, joining the military felt like the natural thing to do. She grew up in Hawaii, where the U.S. military is a major presence, and her grandfather had served as a Marine. After graduating with a degree in history, she received a commission in the Air Force, for which she applied during her senior year. “I wanted to do something that could make a difference in people’s lives,” she says.
At 25, Overholts is now a first lieutenant serving at Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, Louisiana. She works as a force-support officer, handling the paperwork when an airman has orders to go to another base or wants to re-enlist. Her job will become more challenging this summer, when she is deployed to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. There, she’ll oversee the arrival of the fallen airmen, marines, and soldiers whose remains are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. She’ll arrange for visitations from high-ranking officials and members of the press, and greet the families of the deceased soldiers, among other duties. Her time in the Air Force has taught her to adapt to novel situations with alacrity. “I wasn’t expecting the Air Force to be such a big part of my life before enlisting,” she says. “It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life. You wear the uniform 24-7, and you can get called up at 3 a.m. or forced to come in on your day off. You learn that the mission comes first for everything.”
Despite the military’s focus on conformity, she hasn’t lost her Barnard strength of spirit. She recounts being put in charge of a sergeant who was “a nice guy, but couldn’t get the job done or lead his people effectively.” Although he’d been in the unit for several years, no one had ever been honest with him about his shortcomings. When Overholts began supervising him, she told him her expectations and standards. He couldn’t deliver, and she replaced him. “It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do.” Overholts credits Barnard for giving her the strength to handle such difficult situations. “I’m not afraid to do what I need to do, and speak out for what I believe,” she says.
- Kathryn Hawkins
- photograph by Noah Sheldon