First African American female Grey Beret

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Katie Tamesis
  • 93rd Air Ground Operations Wing

Oftentimes people are not aware they are making history while they’re in the midst of it, and that couldn’t be truer for Staff Sgt. Shanelle Newman who unknowingly became the first African American female Grey Beret. 

Originally from the Washington D.C. area, Newman was surrounded by government and Department of Defense installations growing up, but never aspired to join the military. However, her father’s constant encouragement finally paid off in 2017 when she decided to enlist at 25 years old. 

Newman came into the Air Force “open general”, meaning she didn’t enlist for a specific job. She was hoping for a medical career but was open to anything. To her surprise, she got designated to an Air Force weather unit after basic training. 

When Newman received her first assignment at Fort Bragg Army Post, North Carolina, she thought there was a mistake. 

“I remember getting the paperwork and seeing ‘Fort Bragg’ and I was like, ‘I joined the Air Force. I think this is wrong’,” Newman said. “They were like, ‘No, you're going [to] an Air Force weather squadron that supports the Army.’” 

Newman recalled her male counterparts all being jealous of her assignment to an Army post and even had some try to trade assignments with her.  

“I ended up not trading,” Newman said. “I said, ‘I'll just go to Fort Bragg, if these guys want to go so bad there must be something good about it.’” Going from Air Force training straight to Fort Bragg, an Army high operational tempo location, was a large jump for Newman. 

“Going from basic training at Keesler Air Force Base to Fort Bragg and having to switch over and learn Army, I was like ‘What is going on?’ It was too much information all at once,” Newman said. “Why do I have to learn all these different ranks? Why aren’t all the ranks the same across the board? So it was a little more challenging. Especially having to learn new branch’s culture and still train and be proficient in my job as well.” 

Although it was challenging at first, she found the weather mission intriguing and began to learn what it meant to be an Air Force Staff Weather Officer (SWO). 

“When I first got to Fort Bragg, it was just the ‘18th Weather Squadron’ but they were trying to change the name to ‘18th Combat Weather Squadron’ and I didn't really understand why until I got there,” Newman said. “We did all this typical weather training, but we also did training in Humvees; how to drive a Humvee, how to do preventative maintenance service checks, how to do land navigation and we got to go TDY (temporary duty assignments) to do these extra trainings.” 

Newman continued to gain knowledge about combat weather and became passionate about the mission, quickly learning the strategy behind the tactics. 

“At the squadron, we were broken up into different sections: the tactical level, the operational level and the strategic level,” Newman said. “I got to the strategic level to see how everything from the top goes all the way down. To see stuff on a mass scale of movements and all of these entities that come together, it was a pretty eye opening. I didn't know it took this much just to push this many people out the door and you know, to get a plan together, and then it actually ties back into what's happening now.” 

After understanding how combat weather impacts operations on the ground, Newman was met with the opportunity to learn the impacts from the sky. 

“I remember getting to the unit and they brought up airborne,” Newman said. “I saw these guys with grey berets and I (thought), ‘Who the heck are these guys? Why are they so fancy?’ And after I learned they were airborne I was like, ‘Oh that’s pretty cool’ but I didn't think too much about it until I went to squadron and the commander was like, ‘Hey, do you want to be airborne?’ And at the time, I don't know if it was for me.” 

Her hesitation to go airborne was replaced with excitement after she learned about the Christmas toy drop. 

“What actually made me want to jump was the fact that during the Christmas season, they have a toy drop and you can jump with different nationals,” Newman said. “Every time you jump with the nationals you can get different wings. That’s the idea that made me want to jump. I thought, ‘I wouldn't mind doing a toy drop and jumping with Germans or Italians.’ So that’s what initially caught my attention. I was like, ‘Foreign wings, that's pretty awesome.’” 

After making the decision to apply for airborne school, Newman’s first priority was to increase her physical fitness. 

“I started going on a training regimen because I wanted to be ready,” Newman said. “In order to attend you have to pass physically. So I started training, and then I felt like I was ready. But then I got deployed. I ended up going to Afghanistan and while I was there, I kept training. I ran, went to the gym almost every day, and when I came back, COVID hit and everything shut down for over a year. But I kept up my workout regimen. And then the slot finally opened up. I was able to go to airborne.” 

Three weeks into airborne school, Newman reached jump week. 

“I wouldn't say I'm scared of heights, but I found out pretty quickly that when they open up the airplane doors that I was scared,” Newman said. “They do the commands and you stand up and hook up, and you're trying to check everybody, you face forward, then the doors open and you hear all this wind. That’s when my stomach dropped. I was like, ‘Just follow my commands.’ I mean, they pretty much ingrained it into us, so I just did as I recalled. 

“My first jump was a night jump, and when you become a jumper, you know what that means,” Newman explained. “For inexperienced jumpers, every jump is a night jump because you always close your eyes when you jump. So my first few jumps were pretty much night jumps even though it was daytime. But they were great and I landed.” 

When Newman got back to her squadron, she realized she was the only female jumper. 

“Even when I first got to the squadron with the jumpers that were there, I didn't see any female jumpers,” Newman said.  “There was one female jumper at the time, but she wasn't jumping anymore so the active jumpers were all male, which made some females discouraged, but I was like, ‘Why should that matter?’ So I just kept pursuing it. Finally, I was like, ‘You know what? I want to do it because I want to do it, I don't care if it’s all guys.’ And that's what ended up happening.” 

Newman soon became an inspiration to other females who wanted to pursue airborne as well. 

“I have females that come to me and asked me ‘Hey, what do you do to get ready?’ because sometimes they are intimidated to ask the guys about how to work out, to ask them advice and stuff like that,” Newman said. “But I didn't think would happen, it just happened. I didn't know that it had that much of an impact of me being a female jumper and then all of a sudden, I have the females come and ask me, ‘What do you do?’ or, ‘How are you doing?’” 

To the other females that would come to Newman for advice, she would always ask them their ‘Why’. 

“I ask them why they want to jump first,” Newman said. “Because you have to, for me, know why you’re doing it. What got me through was the fact that I wanted to do the toy drop, I wanted wings, I wanted to do something different and I wanted to conquer my fear. Sometimes having that reason is a good thing to hold on to, to keep you pushing. It gives you motivation. It makes you determined to complete it, and then once you complete it, on to the next test, you know, because now you will accomplish something you thought you never would accomplish. I thought that I wasn't going to even make it airborne at some point, and now maybe I should try Air Assault next, but I'll save that for another time.”Another motivating factor for Newman were the role models in her life that inspired her to keep going. 

“The first person who inspired me to go airborne at the time was my commander, Lt. Col. Cowell,” Newman said. “I remember he came to the unit and we had an airborne meeting for the people who were active jumpers and those who were volunteering to be jumpers who haven't yet gone to the basic airborne course. He gave this speech on why this is a great program. He started with the history of it starting back in World War II and all these different weather people that have made an impact. Then the one thing that really stood out to me was he had airborne patches and he passed them out to each volunteer. He said, ‘If you ever feel like you're not able to do it, or you don't feel like going for that run in the morning, or you don't feel like doing that workout, you just need some motivation, remember this patch.’” 

“I kid you not, since he gave me the patch, I have held it in my pocket every day,” Newman said.  “Every day, even when I went to airborne and deployed, I kept the patch and I kept it on me even with all those runs and workouts. I always had the patch in my pocket. My first five jumps, I had the patch in my pocket. So he was definitely motivation and he was inspirational in terms of me wanting to be a jumper because he gave me something to hold onto with that patch, a reminder.” 

The other inspiration in her life is her mother, who has supported her from the very beginning. 

“My second person of inspiration is definitely my mother,” Newman said. “She has been with me every step of the way. Whenever I feel like, maybe I'm not good enough or maybe I'm not worthy, or you know, because I even had some doubts when I was like, ‘It's all guys who jumped.’ She was the one that said, ‘Well, if it's all guys, it's only an ‘f-e’ in front of ‘male’ so turn it out!’ But it was always her words of encouragement and her pushing me and saying you can do it. I call her up when I'm feeling stressed and she's like, ‘Look how far you've come you have much more to accomplish.’ And I'm like, ‘Okay, you're right.’ She always brings me back and gives me that good moral support.” 

Along with support from her family, Newman has received an influx of support from her leadership team. 

“We are so proud of Staff Sgt. Newman on becoming the first African American female Combat Weather Parachutist in Air Force history,” said Col. Dane Crawford, 93rd Air Ground Operations Wing vice commander. “She earned her Grey Beret and the coveted Airborne Combat Weather Team Crest in April of 2021 so it’s fitting to capture this moment as we culminate Women’s History Month and following Black History Month. Part of the American dream is that regardless of race, gender, background, or creed as long as you set your heart to achieve a goal and you meet the standard you can accomplish anything! Well done, Shanelle!” 

Lt. Col. David Mack, the current 18th Combat Weather Squadron commander, also asserted his great respect for Newman and expressed his appreciation to have her on his team. 

“Staff Sgt. Newman has worked extremely hard to earn her Grey Beret and we couldn’t be more proud of her,” Mack said. 

There have been other female airborne qualified combat weather Airmen, but Staff Sgt. Newman is first African-American female to don the Grey Beret.