CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Hope Skibitsky had felt relegated to a cycle of struggle. After running away from an unstable home at a very early age, she sought to find a support system she could rely on to provide stability and direction.
“I lived with friends and had a bed,” Skibitsky said. “Sometimes I was a borrower of the sofa.”
Years into high school, her days were spent as a part-time student, part-time high school janitor. She came back every day to the shoebox apartment she shared with her friend, Jennifer.
“We both had family struggles,” Skibitsky said. “We latched onto each other after her Dad passed away.”
For months, the future felt uncertain for Hope. That was before she got a letter from her father.
A preacher and close family friend from Ranger, Texas, offered her a place to stay for her senior year. For the first time in years, Skibitsky had a guardian to watch over her. And it was during this time she began to examine her opportunities.
“My Dad had been in the Air Force, so I wondered if it was something that might work for me,” Skibitsky said. “I shared my thoughts with the family that had given me a place in their home and hearts, and they thought it would be a great opportunity—one that would help me discover my potential.”
It was soon after she realized she had a chance with the military that she found herself sitting in front of a recruiter with her guardian. She left the office a member of the Delayed Entry Program for the U.S. Air Force.
Despite moving forward with her life, there was still a chunk of her heart stuck wondering about why things were the way they were at home.
“Growing up we were always dirty kids; we lived in filth,” Skibitsky said. “As we got older, we learned a lot about hygiene at school, so we remedied a lot of this on our own. I was in middle school, so I knew enough by then to take care of myself. We always scavenged at clothes donation drop-offs and discarded food stuffs from the dumpsters behind grocery stores. All of this happened before I ran away. I remember calling my Dad to tell him where I would be was the day I walked out. I called him and said I was leaving, but I’d tell him where I was going if he promised not to come after me.”
Amidst the busy days balancing training for her Air Force career job and coping with the change in lifestyle, Skibitsky thought to herself that she wouldn’t extend past her first contract.
Her first impression of the military at BMT was that of equality and competition. Everyone was elevated to the same level, given the same uniform and slept in the same beds in the same dorm together. Everyone was given a chance to become something better; an opportunity Skibitsky dreamed of for so long.
Yet, the sudden jump from this incredibly structured lifestyle to tech school was something she hadn’t experienced before.
“I wanted [so badly] just to be back in the structured environment of BMT,” Skibitsky said. “I was sure I would get out after my enlistment was up.”
Her job as a medical technician, she soon found out, was challenging her in ways she hadn’t experienced before. Yet, she found something redeeming in it.
“There is nothing natural about the medical field,” she explained. “You have to learn everything. For me, I’m a hands-on learner, so after a while I realized the passion I had for the career field and the impact I could have on people.”
Little did she know that the field would soon have a very personal impact on her. Months into tech school, she found out she was pregnant with her son, Garrett.
“As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I was sent to the Medical Group for evaluation and screening,” Skibitsky said. “All of the medics were very caring and kind, reassuring and supportive—their compassion made me believe they really cared about me and my new little human.”
It gave her a sense of purpose and belonging that, up until that moment in her life, she hadn’t truly felt before.
“I desperately wanted to be part of a family—they made me feel I was,” she recalled. “I wanted to be able to take care of my baby and the Women’s Health provider gave me a lot of good advice about how the Air Force cares for families—I was ‘in.’”
From the training she received and then the treatment she was given during her son’s birth in 1996, Skibitsky had a new outlook on her future that didn’t involve running away from things. She felt safe.
As a young woman and mother learning about a new career and lifestyle in the Air Force, finding structure and building a foundation were hard tasks for Skibitsky. It was with the aid of some spectacular mentors that helped her discover how to not only cope, but excel, in her environment.
“(Ret.) Maj. Sylvia Pena was one of the very first. She taught me so much about obstetrics, medicine, life, and the Air Force,” Skibitsky said. “People should be so lucky to have a mentor like her.”
There were also two nurses, Shelly and Barbara, who aided Skibitsky in her early years with parenthood and learning how to deal with issues up-front.
“They called a spade a spade with me—never let me slack off, held me to account and corrected me on the spot,” Skibitsky explained. “These ladies are THE reason I, to this day, hold myself to account.”
With the help of these mentors early in her career and the support given by the medical staff that welcomed her child, Skibitsky determined she felt like a part of things, and reenlisted when given the chance to do so.
Over time, more doors opened, even those to fragments of the past when Skibitsky’s sister invited her to their wedding in Wichita, Kan. in 1998. There, she got to see all of her family: all five of her siblings, her parents, and the new extension to their family.
“I realized that my sisters kept closer together than I kept with them,” Skibitsky said. “I had only ever seen my sister Louise since I joined, and that was because she also joined the military.”
Over the years, as social media became more prevalent, she found the chance to connect with her siblings more as she worked her way up the Air Force ranks.
“We got to be much closer together than we were allowed as kids,” she said.
Not only was she able to become closer to family, but she got to fulfill a wish she had to go back to where it all began.
“Being a military training instructor was one of the very best experiences of my career,” Skibitsky said. “Having impact on so many peoples’ lives and careers—being the first example of the Air Force, nothing had ever felt so rewarding. Plus, I got to go back to BMT!”
She served as an MTI at Lackland AFB, Texas 2004-2008, before returning the medical field and continued meeting mentors that helped shape her career.
“Each [of my mentors] have each played a huge role in growing, educating, supporting, developing me and keeping me on track,” Skibitsky said. “I have so many stories about each of these women and what they did to make me stronger, keep me grounded, hold me accountable, remind me of the brighter days to come, and cheer my successes—it would take hours to cover it all.”
Whether it was in tech school, being an MTI or deployed as a medical technician, she had endured occasional unjust treatment, but overcame it all. Coming from a difficult background without role models, the strong women she encountered throughout her Air Force career allowed her to meet challenges with a fresh perspective and fierce sense of confidence.
“I am proud to be a woman in the Air Force because, though some supervisors, leaders, co-workers and onlookers have gone out of their way to try and discourage, discriminate, intimidate or embarrass me for being female in a male-dominated environment, those instances have been so few, and I feel the Air Force’s processes and opportunities have been incredibly fair and available to me, regardless of my gender,” Skibitsky said. “I have felt as much a part of this Air Force family as I can imagine any male Airman I’ve served with.”
Today, she is deployed overseas from her role as command chief of the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon. When back home, she lives with her husband, Justin, who is a large part of her home support system.
“My husband is very empathetic. He gets what I’ve been through. He’s always been my biggest fan and best friend,” Skibitsky said. “When I feel down, he picks me up. He’s an amazing mirror and is very affectionate. He helps me see what I fail to recognize in myself”
This affection she has back home contrasts that of her early life, and if she had the chance to sit down with 18-year-old Hope, she’d spare a few words.
“Trade a Dr. Pepper for a water. Put the cigarette down. Cut the credit card up. Find a strong senior NCO and tell them you don’t know what to ask, but there’s so much you want to know. Don’t be discouraged—it will all work out!”
But she doesn’t only think about how she’d mentor her younger self; she wants to inspire and lead women across the Air Force.
“Keep going,” she said. “Keep trying. Keep smiling. Keep asking for help. Keep teaching and sharing. Keep loving and supporting. Just keep on keeping on. Without challenges, we don’t grow. Without adversity, we don’t get stronger.”
Perhaps those words will echo for generations of young women in the Air Force, as they come from Chief Master Sgt. Hope Skibitsky, the first ever female active duty command chief in Air Force Special Operations Command history.