This week my guest is Nicole Malachowski. She is a combat veteran, the first female Thunderbird pilot, a former fighter squadron commander, a former White House Fellow and advisor, and patient advocate.
This episode was made possible by Foundation For Women Warriors. Foundation for Women Warriors (FFWW) is a unique support organization created exclusively for the women veteran community. They provide essential programs to enhance the economic and personal wellbeing of women veterans and their families. Originally established in 1920 to serve widows, war nurses, and mothers of fallen service members, Foundation for Women Warriors is celebrating its 100 year anniversary. FFWW honors the service of women veterans by empowering their future through financial assistance, childcare assistance, and professional development. If you want to learn more about Foundation for Women Warriors and how to get involved head to their website foundationforwomenwarriors.org.
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At five years old Nicole went to an air show in California and saw the F-4 fly and knew she wanted to be a fighter pilot. Even though women couldn’t be fighter pilots her family didn’t dissuade her from joining. She knew at 12 that she wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and even wrote a letter to the Academy letting them know she wanted to attend.
She applied and was accepted into the Air Force and Naval Academy along with ROTC scholarships and choose to attend the Air Force Academy. Even though she knew she couldn’t be a fighter pilot when she began her training at the Air Force Academy in 1992 she was planning to be a tanker pilot.
In 1993, the law banning women from fighter pilots was removed and the doors opened for her to follow the dream she had since she was five. She graduated and went off to pilot training and was able to graduate and become an F-15E pilot. She said she was never the greatest pilot but always worked hard.
Her first assignment was at RAF Lakenheath in England. And she found herself flying her first combat mission after the Kosovo War ended. She followed her then-boyfriend, now-husband to North Carolina after spending more than a year apart doing long distance. They were set to be married on Oct 7, 2001. September 11th happening less than a month before. There was almost the potential the wedding would be delayed, but it happened. And it actually was the first day bombs were dropped in Afghanistan.
She and her husband were given the opportunity to move together to Korea for their next assignment shortly after their marriage and they headed out to Korea. And a few weeks later her former squadron was preparing to deploy for Operation Enduring Freedom. She said it was hard to not go with them.
We talked about a number of highlights from her career and the challenges that she faced throughout her career. Being dual military, they worked to have open communication with their leadership and also took turns having each other’s career be in the driver’s seat.
In 2006, she became the first female Thunderbird pilot. She talked about applying to be a Thunderbird and not even realizing no woman had done that. She had always served in an Air Force where women could be fighter pilots and didn’t realize that she would be breaking a barrier when she applied. She said that it was important for her to not only open that door for women but leave it open for the women after her. She put pressure on herself to not only do the best for herself but also so that the next woman to fill that role wouldn’t be years away.
In 2012 she was a commander of 333rd Fighter Squadron. She loved being a commander and had so many stories of how she was able to impact the lives of her Airmen directly through her leadership as a commander. She also began to have strange symptoms that no one could pinpoint what was causing and wasn’t able to fly anymore. She was determined to continue to provide service to the Air Force even if she couldn’t fly. She went to the Naval War College and was a White House Fellow. Then one morning in 2016 she woke up and couldn’t move. She was paralyzed temporarily and was sent to Massachusetts to get seen by a specialist. They discovered she had Lyme disease and had an infection in her brain.
The military allowed her service to continue as she went through treatment and then in 2017 she was mailed her retirement paperwork and she was no longer in the Air Force. It was a hard transition and very abrupt. She credits the Wounded Warrior Program to help her find herself and what led her to find her purpose again as a Speaker.
She encourages young women to join the military. She talked about the barriers being broken and how much opportunity there is. If there is a desire in your heart to do it, you should.
Connect with Nicole:
Mentioned in this Episode:
Wounded Warrior Project
US Air Force Academy
US Naval Academy
Air Force Thunderbirds
Before Women Could Be Fighter Pilots – Episode 29
Do You Know the Story of the Original Military Women Pilots? – Episode 49
A Navigator in the Air Force – Episode 62
Read the full transcript here.
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Amanda Huffman 00:00
Welcome to Episode 93 of the Women of the Military Podcast. My guest this week is Nicole Malachowski. She is the first woman to serve in the Air Force as a Thunderbird pilot, she shared so many different experiences throughout her career and such wisdom from her time in and out of the military. I was really blown away by not only her story as being one of the first women to do something in the military and to break that glass ceiling. But all the little pieces of her life story that led to that point and beyond. It's another great episode and I'm excited to share her story with you. So let's get started. You're listening to the Woman of the Military Podcast where we share the stories of female servicemembers and how the military touched their lives. I'm Amanda Huffman. I am an Air Force veteran, author of women of the military and a collaborative author Brave Women Strong Faith. I'm also a military spouse and mom, I created Women in the Military Podcast as a place to share stories of military women past and present with the goal of finding the heart of the story while uncovering the triumphs, and challenges women face while serving in the military. If you want to be encouraged by the stories of military women and be inspired to change the world, keep tuned for this latest episode of Women of the Military. Welcome to the show, Nicole, I'm excited to have you here.
Nicole Malachowski 01:38
Oh, thanks a lot for having me. I appreciate it.
Amanda Huffman 01:41
Let's start with why did you decide to join the military.
Nicole Malachowski 01:44
I was a pretty lucky kid and that I grew up in a very stable household middle-class America. I was born in Central California, and both of my grandfather's had served in the military. They were both in the Navy actually, and one of them commissioned and then went into the army. As an officer, my father had also been drafted for a little while during the Vietnam War into the army. So I was raised with the knowledge, you know, that people in my family had served. And we were the type of family who would go to the Veterans Day parades, you know, who would honor the military. So I knew from a young age that serving your country, you know, was a noble and an honorable thing. And there were stories in my family that passed that down. And I remember as a kid going to those, like Veterans Day events, and I was always intrigued by the people in uniform and marching together. I don't know what it was about that. But I thought it was so neat to see a group marching together carrying the American flag wearing the same uniform as a little kid that was interesting. But the kicker the day I remember deciding I was going to join the military. I was about five years old. My family had gone to an airshow in California, nice American patriotic pastime, right? The good old fashioned local air show and there was an aircraft there called the f4 Phantom and it was flying and the f4 Phantom as you play Probably no was the workhorse of the Vietnam War. And I can distinctly remember that playing Columbine low and fast over the runway. And like it was a feast for the senses, right? Like I could feel it rumble in my chest, I covered my ears because it was loud. I could smell the jet fuel. And you know, little kids, like, get so excited like they shake. And I remember just sitting there just shaking with excitement. And then I realized, like, you can join the military and be in the Air Force, and they have those planes. And it was at that moment, I remember looking at my family and saying, I'm going to be a fighter pilot someday. And well, yeah, that's the day the decision was made. Little did I know now that was around 1979. Little did I know, it was actually against the law at that time, you know, for women to be fighter pilots. But as a kid, I was blissfully naive. More importantly, I was hooked.
Amanda Huffman 03:44
Yeah, that's, that's kind of crazy. And did your parents dissuade you or were they like, yeah, you can do that.
Nicole Malachowski 03:51
I'm very lucky to say that. My parents were always very supportive. And I remember times when I was flying in high school and such where my mom she just, it was nervous and nerve wracking. For her, but both of my parents thought, you know, hey, if you're going to do it, you know, go out there and put the effort in in the work to get it done. So my parents had very, I think, high standards, I think that was good. So my dad, you know, would be more like, hey, being a fighter pilot, that's cool and all, but what do you have to do to get there? So they were always pushing me to think about the steps that needed to happen in order to get there. So that was very helpful, but not once. Did anybody in my family ever say, That's too hard? You know, people can't become fighter pilots. That's too difficult or worse. You know, they lucky for me, they never said, you know, women can't do that.
Amanda Huffman 04:38
Yeah, that's great to hear. And you went to the Air Force Academy, right?
Nicole Malachowski 04:42
I did. I graduated with the class in 1996.
Amanda Huffman 04:44
So you went to the Air Force Academy and how did that process go for getting in? Like, was that your plan? Obviously not when you were five years old, but in high school that you were going to go to the Air Force Academy or did you look at other options?
Nicole Malachowski 04:59
I think like you as people I looked at other options, but if I'm being honest, I was pretty focused on on trying to go to the Air Force Academy. I became aware of the Air Force Academy and or what it took to become an officer and therefore have an option to go to pilot training. I became aware of that when I was about 12 years old. And it kind of a funny story here because I was so maniacally focused on becoming a fighter pilot. When I was 12. I learned about the Air Force Academy and I actually sent the admissions office a letter, and I said, I want to go What do I need to do to apply and really nicely, a lady wrote back to me, and she says, you know, you're a little bit young right now, but I want to send you a candidate handbook anyways. And here's some other kind of resources for you. And I really appreciated that because I was able to, you know, be proactive on the application process. As you know, and maybe some of your listeners the application process to get into the Air Force Academy is a lot more complex and runs a much longer timeline than say, getting into a regular college. So having that knowledge early, if you will, in junior high or even a freshman in high school was helpful. I was absolutely aware of the options of going to officer trainings. school or going to a four year college on an ROTC scholarship. So while I was working towards the Air Force Academy application and timeline in parallel, I worked towards getting ROTC scholarships. So I'm, I'm happy to say going through that I was actually accepted to the Air Force Academy in October of my senior year of high school, which was super cool, right? Because I kind of could deflate and not stress as much as you know, some of my other classmates were. And I was also lucky enough in there to be accepted to the Naval Academy. And I also was lucky enough to receive four year scholarships to both Air Force and Naval ROTC. So it was wonderful to have that many options and also slightly overwhelming. But with my goal of becoming a fighter pilot, which had had since I was five, the clear option to kind of hedge my bets, right to have more opportunities to go to pilot training at that time was to go to the Air Force Academy.
Amanda Huffman 06:51
Yeah, that makes sense. And you graduated in 1996. And women were allowed to be fighter pilots and like 95 was that right? Or When did that all change?
Nicole Malachowski 07:01
I think the law changed..and please, we'll have to look up accuracy. I'm gonna be your here, I think a lot changed in 92. And I think the first women started flying in 1993. You know, it was an interesting time because I had come to the Air Force Academy wanting to be a fighter pilot, but also knowing that it was against the law and women couldn't be fighter pilots. And I used to talk a big game, you know, with my other friends and classmates, like man, I would fly the F 15 Strike Eagle, if I could, but since they don't let women do that I wanted to be a tanker pilot. I thought it's an extraordinary mission. I still believe that and to be able to refuel the aircraft and the fighters that that need to get to, to get to where they're going. And so I was like, Well, if I can't be a fighter pilot, I'll fly tankers, but I still talked like this big game. I was 18, maybe a little little cocky. And I remember the day that the Congress lifted the ban, and all my friends came over and they're like Nicole, Nicole, you know, your dream can finally come true. You can be a fighter pilot, and I kept this too. ever live? I'm like, Yeah, that's great. I'm going to do it. And inside I was thinking, Oh, man, now I gotta walk the talk right now I got to actually roll up my sleeves, put in the elbow grease and make this happen. So it was neat to be there at such an extraordinary time. A lot of people have said to me that, you know, Nicole, you you're really successful. We know what's the recipe to success. And, you know, sure, there's hard work and stuff. But at the end of the day, I think it's important to acknowledge, at least in my case, I'm the product of TLC timing, luck and circumstance. I was born at the right time, a door opened, and I was afforded an opportunity that plenty countless of talented women before me weren't afforded. So I'm very humble about that, and very cognizant of that.
Amanda Huffman 08:40
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You have to be in the right place at the right time. You still have to do the hard work, but some of it is a little bit of luck and timing and everything. So what was pilot training like? So you know,
Nicole Malachowski 08:51
when you're at the Air Force Academy, you're getting graded on lots of things, right? You're getting graded on your academics, you get graded on your leadership teamwork skills, and you get graded. Your athletic tech skills and all those go into a mathematical calculation, you know, that gives you your class ranking. And at that time at the Air Force Academy, you would put in a wish list of jobs that you wanted in the Air Force, you know, and everything from being a pilot all the way to be in a, you know, an engineer or a doctor, anything in between, and you would rank you know, your top few, and then they the big day, would take your class ranking played out against the needs of the Air Force, because, you know, certain years, they had more pilots that they needed than other years, I know that we've seen that go up and down over time. My year was a very, very good year, I graduated, you know, I want to see like 150 or something like that in my class, there's less than 1000 of us. So anyways, I was able to get a pilot slot. So that's how that worked out very lucky. And then when you get to pilot training, now I'm dating myself here, right? So I'm talking about, you know, December of 1996. So a lot has changed since then. So I want the listeners realize I'm talking about pilot training back then. It was a 12 month long program. There were just over two dozen people that started with my class. Statistically at that time, statistically about 20% of people, you know, would wash out of those remaining statistically at that time, you know, you needed to be in the top 20% in order to get a fighter aircraft. Obviously, the number of fighter aircraft available each year with each graduating class changed. And now we see, you know, a whole transition where the top graduates of classes want to fly drones or you know, want to fly, see 17 type aircraft, the missions have changed, the type of warfare has changed, but at that time, that was kind of trying to graduate the top you know, 15-20% of your class was what I was aiming for. Everything was graded, your simulator flights, your academic tests, your daily flights, your leadership, teamwork skills were graded. The thing that was weighted the most though, was something called a check ride. There were also pre check rides. Big Picture, these were the stressor points, these happened every few weeks. These were the pre tests and the tests and those are the things you know that you would get nervous about it. You know, Certainly that included me people knew Hey, you know you can you can fail one checkride and still graduate you start failing to and you're running down a slippery slope. I'll stop there.
Amanda Huffman 11:10
Yeah, and now word from our sponsor. foundation for women warriors is a unique support organization created exclusively for the women veteran community. They provide essential programs to enhance the economic and personal well being of women veterans and their families originally established in 1920. To serve widows, war nurses and mothers have fallen service members. foundation for women warriors is celebrating their 100 year anniversary foundation for women warriors honors the service of women veterans by empowering their future through financial assistance, childcare assistance and professional development. If you want to learn more about foundation for women warriors and how to get involved head to their website foundation for women warriors.org. And now let's get back to the show. So you obviously were in the top 15- 20% because you got fighters.
Nicole Malachowski 12:05
Yeah, I did. So, to be clear, I did fail one of those. I think it was a pre checkride in t37s. I gotta tell people at the time I was young, this had been my goal since I was five years old. And in that moment, when I failed that ride, I literally had the wind knocked out of me, I thought, I'm never going to graduate pilot training, I might as well you know, quit. Now I had that moment of poor me, I knew that I had just shot myself in the foot as far as graduating high enough to be a fighter pilot. I mean, I used my Mulligan early in that 12 month program, you know, and that was a good it was a humbling experience. It was a good experience. I came away, you know, more humble, a lot more committed, I think a lot more focused on making it happen. Lucky for me, the next you know, about top 10 months went okay, and I did graduate high enough to pick the aircraft of my choice, which was the 15 Strike Eagle.
Amanda Huffman 12:56
So let's talk a little bit about like the high points of your career. So you I graduated pilot training in like 97. And then was there anything between I like to talk to people like before September 11. And after because I feel like the military mission, especially as like being a fighter pilot change. So from like 97 to 2001 What was it like to be in the Air Force and what were you doing?
Nicole Malachowski 13:21
Yeah, well, it was an extraordinary time to be in the Air Force. And I love pilot training and went to learn to fly the F 15. Eight Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. I did not get through that scot free. I had some bumps and bruises along the way. I remember a lot of times the instructors calling me average Ellingwood because average I knew it, you know, I was just doing my best to get through. We had some extraordinary people in my class where things came very naturally to them. And if I'm being honest, I never was never had been and never will be a naturally gifted fighter pilot. It was something I had to work very, very hard for. I did make it through and 15 years ago, which is great and got my first choice of assignment, young lieutenant single fly and fighters. I want to go overseas, right? So I put in for RAF Lakenheath in England and was able to get that and it was an exciting time because you know, there's a small group of us that graduated that went there together. So you had your friends, we all ever roommates together, we traveled all over Europe. But interestingly, as we arrived, Operation Allied Force was kicking off. And you may recall that was the Kosovo Serbian war. And there was actually some action there in the air. I myself did not deploy during Operation Allied Force, but I did deploy for my first combat here in 1999, is what what's called Operation deliberate Forge. And all that is was kind of an operation Allied Force kind of ended. It kind of transitioned to more of these kind of peacekeeping missions, if you will, so it counted as combat time. It was still definitely combat but I was happy to report for me it was actually pretty anticlimactic missions, but from there, I love Lakenheath. Most importantly, I met my future husband there. I got my next assignment at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. And that's where I would be as a flight lead in the 15th. When September 11 happened,
Amanda Huffman 15:11
yeah, so you met your husband? And did you guys date for a while? Did you marry right away? How did that all work?
Nicole Malachowski 15:18
Yeah, well, I gotta tell you so I met him in 1999 in England, and you know, women were just now coming into fighter squadrons. And when he and I started like dating we had we had to keep it like super secret because there are a lot of people who weren't into that it was so for some For some it was like wow, we finally like let you women fly fighter aircraft and now you're going to come in and ruin this culture and date guys and all of that. You know, it's no different than any other job or profession when you're working around people. It's not uncommon for you know, people to meet at work date and eventually get married. So we met and honestly we were only dating kind of on the download for a few months, literally like three months before he PCSd to North Carolina, so on was over in England for nearly a year, we dated long distance. And that's why I put North Carolina as my number one choice. But it was hard for a lot of people, I'm proud to say my husband and I are the very first married fftt couples in the Air Force. Now you can't go into a fighter squadron without it so adapted as long as you're professional at work. It doesn't matter.
Amanda Huffman 16:21
It makes a lot of sense. And so you guys eventually got married, and you were dual military, dual fighter pilot. So what was life like? I was dual military, and I know how hard it is. And we weren't, we weren't pilots. So that is different.
Nicole Malachowski 16:36
So one of the things that is actually helpful and just to just to make sure we're on the same page, my husband was actually a weapon systems officer. So we're a backseater in the 15th. So we were never like indirect competition for like the same slots and it actually made it easier for us, you know, to PCS together. That said, the joint spouse spouse program at that time was a lot of luck. It was a lot of hidden hit or miss maybe a name only kind of a thing. The Air Force has come a long way in the last 20 something years, and I think they're being much more proactive about Jerome spouse, but back then I mean, we're talking right 2001 it meant he and I having an honest conversation about whose next assignment or upgrade or promotion is going to take precedent. And we were just, we just made a decision, like we just wanted to kind of we would alternate, we would alternate who got to lead assignments. And one of the first things we would do when we would get to a new assignment or location and we would in process with a new commander is let them know what we're looking to do, you know, in the two to four year plan so that when opportunities do present themselves for us to PCS together, the commanders were thinking of us. I think a lot of times is women or married couples in the military, we we don't want to seem like we're asking too much or asking for special treatment, you know, by saying you know, what we want for assignments, but the only way to actually get what you want is to ask for it and I found that commanders were always excited to help us We were assigned together every single assignment for 19 years, which is on heard of. Now, it is unheard of. But I think it's because we were honest and proactive. And we both allowed each other to alternate who got to lead the next assignment.
Amanda Huffman 18:16
Yeah. And I think that open communication, like just like in a marriage is really important. It's also really important with your commanders, because my commanders are the biggest advocates to help me and my husband get stationed together. I didn't know the right people to talk to and they knew like, who to talk to and what jobs were available and like, they helped me and like you said, because they knew they were able to help and it really made a big difference.
Nicole Malachowski 18:40
And commanders generally speaking, I mean, we can always talk about the fringe, generally speaking, right? They want to be helpful, you know, and I always tell people give your up. You give your commander an opportunity to do right by you.
Amanda Huffman 18:52
Yeah. So let's talk about post 911. What What were you doing then and what was life like and
Nicole Malachowski 19:00
September 11, was obviously life changing for every single American and you know, for the world, frankly, and you know, we're still dealing right with the ramifications of that. I was a four ship, I think f 15 e flight lead, you know, at the 336 fighter squadron. I remember the day I was in the dentist's chair getting a cavity filled and they had a TV actually in there that I was watching as I had my you know, dental goggles on in my mouth, a gate there. And I remember we're watching the news when the first plane hit the first tower. And it was really weird. And then, too few minutes later, an announcement went out. They wanted everybody back in the squadron. So they finished up with what they were doing with my cavity, I ran to the squatter and got there just in time, the whole squad or all your crew were standing around the obstacle, and we stood there. And as you know, at the operations desk and a fighter squadron, there's usually like four to six TVs. And that's when we all watched the second plane hit the second tower. And at that moment, everybody knew this was not some sort of weird freak accident. There's something going on here and we all stayed until you know We got the briefings and I will never forget I will never forget sorry I get a little bit like
Amanda Huffman 20:07
Nicole Malachowski 20:08
I just I will never forget that because you know within a few few days hours I don't know like our F 15 is on American soil are now being loaded up right with live weapons to go fly over your own country it's it's it was so bizarre and initially when that happened or what would eventually become operation noble Eagle right which was providing air cover over the major metropolitan areas. When that happened they sent out the most experienced the majors the lieutenant Colonel's which made complete sense because we didn't have any army at that time or spins or any of that. Within a few weeks. I found myself airborne on my first few missions, and I remember thinking how eerie the silence was on the radios how eerie the silence was. It made your skin crawl because there's no airliners there's no airline traffic, you know, you're just out there flying over what you know, whatever your fracture To go do and you're carrying. It's just it's just strange. This kind of plays back to your last question. I squatter didn't deploy. We deployed a couple fftt squatters forward. September 11 happened. My husband I had set our wedding for October 7. Okay, yeah. So September 11 happens all this is going on. And of course there's background noise that's like we had all his money put down, all these people flying in, etc. So that was a big shock to our system. But our wedding went ahead. A lot of people had to cancel because they were deploying which made complete sense. And our wedding was October 7 2001. The day we dropped the first bomb in Afghanistan. Here we are in 2020 still in Afghanistan. At that moment, we got a phone call from a FPC That said, if you guys leave now we can get you a join spouse assignment to Korea Do you want to go and we went and as soon as we got there, our old squadrons deployed to combat. Oh, that hurt. I couldn't believe we missed that deployment. That was timing luck and circumstance the other way it was hard to watch your squadron and go to war you know without you.
Amanda Huffman 22:07
In Korea doing doing the mission that you needed to do but also like you were just in that place you were with those people and now they're out fighting the fight. I've heard that from a lot of people
Nicole Malachowski 22:18
It hurt. Timing luck and circumstance is everything. The cool stuff was they were for deployed and I was in Korea so I was able to get them all these really cool embroidered stuff, you know, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Cuz they got custom embroidered anything sent to them. So I did what I could I was the best snack I could be from Korea.
Amanda Huffman 22:37
That's awesome. Is there anything else from your time in the military that you want to talk about that like really stands out before we get to being a Thunderbird pilot?
Nicole Malachowski 22:46
You know, I, I gotta tell you, I honestly think I had one of the most unique and extraordinary careers. I'm biased, but I got so lucky with so many super cool assignments. You know, I ended up serving in three operational 15 squadrons I commanded the 330 35 squadron of F 15 instructors. I was a White House fellow under george bush. I was a military advisor to the First Lady Michelle Obama went to Naval War College. I mean, all over the world. I found I felt like Forrest Gump right. Like, I found myself in so many extraordinary situations that I had no business being in other than the grace of the Air Force allowed me those extraordinary opportunities, hands down of all of that, including the Thunderbird thing, the single most important honor of my lifetime the biggest privilege was commanding the 333 fighter squadron being an F 15 squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel tip of the spear, the greatest aircrew, professional skillful trained, patriotic type ages champions, and there I was getting to work with them. And as I feel in the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel squadron commander, that's the last time you really have direct access to impact people's lives and careers in a positive way without having to go through the bureaucratic nonsense and stuff that you know any big organization has man be in a squadron commander that is where it's at hands down. The best guys and gals in my Squadron and their spouses were extraordinary. And their kids I and I got handed a completely functioning Squadron two. So I got to give kudos to Rosie O'Donnell who was the squadron commander before me because it was an amazing culture I rolled in and it wasn't about me, man, that Squadron had the right personalities, the right skill sets, and they just rocked up thinking about it. I missed that if I could go back and do anything in my career. It would be to be Lancer one.
Amanda Huffman 24:39
I think when you get to have a direct impact on people's lives and like be in the thick of it and not down at the bottom or you know, way too high up so that you're not getting to touch the people and you know, to be able to tailor your approach to each individual. There wasn't so many people that I didn't know everyone individually.
Nicole Malachowski 24:56
What's your hobby? What do you like? What are your goals in the Air Force? You know, not everyone He wants to be a general not everybody wants to be chief of staff. That's okay. You know, maybe you want to finish this assignment to transition and get your master's degree somewhere. And you know, and become a business leader. I just loved the diversity of the people and their dreams. And it was always, what can I do to help you get to what you want Next, you know, sometimes in the bureaucracy, the Air Force and the grind, you think there's a certain path, everyone has to check the same squares in the same order to do the same thing or there's somehow not a team player, not contributors, I never bought into that I didn't buy into it then and I don't buy into it now. So getting to know your people, knowing what makes them tick and helping them be the best and what their goals are. That's how you get performance and loyalty out of people.
Amanda Huffman 25:40
That's a true that's great advice. So
Nicole Malachowski 25:44
You got me all all emotional over here. I miss them all.
Amanda Huffman 25:48
I think when you talk to good leaders that that's what happens. They like remember those people and they remember those stories. That's so cool.
Nicole Malachowski 25:56
Like eight years later, and I there's that like every two weeks I would say maybe once a month at worst, I get an email or a Facebook message saying, Hey, man, how's it going? I need some advice, or would you mind writing a recommendation for me to go do X, Y, and Z and I just, it makes my day I live for that. I live for the answers.
Amanda Huffman 26:17
That's like when I get emails from young woman looking to join the military. And they email me about how they found the podcast and how they're finding out about what it's like to be in the military. And it's because I'm asking
Nicole Malachowski 26:29
them exactly how we're helping them achieve their goals. It's not about you or me, it's about the other people and it's just exciting. Good for you. And thanks for what you do.
Amanda Huffman 26:38
Nicole Malachowski 26:38
Is impactful and it is meaningful.
Amanda Huffman 26:41
One other thing that I wanted to talk about is that you became a mom on active duty even before you were commander.
Nicole Malachowski 26:48
Yes, about a year before I became a commander. I'm sorry, I'm chuckling because you know, my twins, they are happy and healthy and they are nine years old, you know, sitting right outside this office here. The hardest thing I've ever gone through in my entire life was that pregnancy I had an unfortunately very difficult and complicated pregnancy. I was in preterm labor for 54 days. And interestingly, maybe some of your listeners guys might think it's TMI, but hey, I had premature uterine contractions every three to 12 minutes for 54 days. So this was a physical grind and emotional psychological grind. It was the single most important thing I've ever done and probably the greatest easily the greatest accomplishment of my life. So it was a very hard pregnancy. They arrived three months early, they were in the nick you pretty sick. And prior to that I had broken my leg very badly and hadn't had a chance to rehab it long story short, at this moment, my husband were having very difficult questions about you know, do I stay in the Air Force? Do I get out are my children going to be special needs should one of us stay home? At that point, it was going to be me. Along comes right. Once again. When you ask for help, they will come we sit here and worry and catastrophize that if we ask for things You know, people are gonna say no, they're gonna consider us weak or laugh at us. It's just not the case. I started talking, this is exactly what I need. I mean, me and my husband to move now, I definitely need to go back to flying, but I need a few months to recuperate. And I started sending this message into the Air Force universe. And they came, the helpers came and we PCs to see Mr. Johnson Air Force Base together, my husband and I, I was able to finish physical therapy and rehab there, and I was able to roll right back into an F 15, a requalification course, all of these things happen because good people and good commanders helped. And I just want the listeners to realize, you know, so many times in life we stop ourselves from speaking what we need out loud thinking it's a sign of weakness, and it's not you're never going to get you need unless you ask for it. And the Air Force came through specific people, the network, my husband and I had built over at that point, you know, whatever, gosh, 15 year career and it came through, it was time to call in those favors that helped and they came, so it was awesome. But yeah, we had them and they were they came in with quite a bang. They keep me humble every day, Sister, I gotta lie.
Amanda Huffman 29:05
What? It's such a good testament to, like the truth of how we can feel like oh, wow, someone's so amazing. I bet they never needed help. But the reality is you can't do anything alone and the people who helped you were probably more than willing to help you and they were like excited that they got to help you and what you need it.
You're 100% right. I couldn't agree more. I mean, think about when someone asks you for help, like most of us just jumped at the chance you might you need me to, you know, help you grocery shop. You need me to watch your kids, you need me to help you study for your next promotion exam. People love to be needed. So think of it that way. Switch your mindset, right, you're not doing yourself a favor, you're doing them a favor.
Amanda Huffman 29:42
That's what I have to do. Because my my husband travels a lot with his current job. And so I'm constantly asking for help, and sometimes I feel bad, but then I have to be like, if they asked me, I would be like, Sure, I'll figure out a way to help you.
Nicole Malachowski 29:55
It brings up another point. And I think you'd agree to me like you got to build your team over Over time you build your tribe over time you solidify those relationships and that network over time, so that when the situation warrants, you have that support system around you, and you volunteer yourself along the way as that support system, other people, you know, and it's reciprocal, it comes right back around. And that's one of the things that's beautiful about the military culture, think it's ingrained in us. You know,
Amanda Huffman 30:23
It's ingrained in us and somehow they ingrain it into the spouses because I'm, I'm a military spouse now. And like, I rely on military spouses all the time to get through different things, and they're, they're so willing to help and
Nicole Malachowski 30:35
I tell you, military spouses and military kids are the strongest, most amazing, awesome, flexible, comfortable dauntless people I've ever met. I sometimes had to remind people, you know that I'm a military spouse too. You know, even when you're in the military yourself, and you're commanding a fighter squadron, you know, and raising twins and all of that I still had a spouse who was fine in combat, who was deployed, I still needed that military spouse network outside of my duties in uniform as a commander, and I would say there there were a lot of women in fighter squadrons. There still aren't. But there's certainly a lot more nowadays than there were back in my time, which is phenomenal. Sometimes you need to have those conversations with other women. And for me, it had to come from my relationship with a lot of the female military spouses, some extraordinary male spouses out there to like my husband. Yeah, he retired five years before me. So when I was a Camaro Fighter Squadron, he was running the spouses club. It was awesome. Awesome. Back to the military spouses. When I was a commander. We had like lawyers, doctors, veterinarians, like the skills these women brought, like blew my mind. I mean, I looked up to them, and it was a dang see I'm getting emotional again. I miss the 333rd fighter squadron.
Amanda Huffman 31:47
People. Yeah, so let's talk a little bit about what it was like to be a Thunderbird pilot. And if you're listening, I told my friend cuz she was like what? And I said, They're like the Blue Angel. And she was like, oh now I know what you're talking about.
Nicole Malachowski 32:04
Amanda Huffman 32:09
Marine spouse so like she I knew if I said Navy stuff, she knows what I'm talking about.
Nicole Malachowski 32:14
No, I'm obviously joking. I adore the Blue Angels. Odd twist of of life. And in keeping me humble my nine year old son is obsessed with the Blue Angels. Last Christmas, he asked me He says, Mom, can I have a Blue Angel sweatshirt? So here I am former Thunderbird pilot buying all this Blue Angel swag. It's all over my house, which is awesome. Blue Angels are extraordinary.
Amanda Huffman 32:35
Yeah, they are. And so what was it like to be given that honor to be I mean, it's just an honor to be a Thunderbird pilot and then to be the first female is kind of like I don't know if it's an added bonus. It's just like a breaking a barrier. But what is it like to be a Thunderbird pilot and what does that represent for the Air Force?
Nicole Malachowski 32:53
Sure. You know, being an Air Force Thunderbird writ large and not just pilots, I think it's important to understand There's about 125 people on the team from 25 different career fields, you know, there's 12 officers, but the vast majority of our team are just the most extraordinary skillful professional enlisted you have ever met. It is a mind blowing and just a privilege to learn and serve alongside them didn't have an opportunity as a fighter pilot in the regular Air Force to be with the enlisted as much. And so one of the great learning points for me and the things I loved the most was to be completely surrounded by and absorbed within a team that was made up of the vast majority of these extraordinary enlisted leaders. So for being a Thunderbird for all of us, whether you're a pilot or not, is a huge honor. And it's obviously very humbling, I think that goes without saying, We're there to represent the Air Force to recruit the next generation and to retain the amazing Airmen that we have. So we talked about represent recruit and retain. That's the mission of the Thunderbirds. And so when you're out there, in all that you do right on and off duty as a Thunderbird, you know, you gotta mind your P's and Q's and At all times, because you're representing every single airman and civilian in our Air Force, and you need to do it with the honor and the respect that they deserve. And so keeping that up was important. So when I think about it an honor and a privilege, yes to be a Thunderbird, but I think for most of us what we felt was a huge responsibility, a responsibility to do it, right, a responsibility to represent those who are out especially those deployed on the frontlines, with the dignity and the honor they deserved and to tell their story. It wasn't about the Thunderbird person staying in front of you. It was about telling the Air Force airman story to the rest of the world. I think the responsibility of it all is the thing that comes to mind for me.
Amanda Huffman 34:43
Yeah, and that's a really cool point to remember that sometimes you see like the person in the front and you don't think about like all the moving pieces behind it and how important you can't do your job without all the airmen who are helping, like maintain the planes and all the different things They were doing
Nicole Malachowski 35:00
125 plus people 25 different career fields and all it took was one not doing their job and the uniqueness of that mission wouldn't be done. I tell people all the time, I worked really hard for 30 minutes out of day flying that air show that's true, but the other 23 hours and 30 minutes out of the day. 20 473 65 right there were 100 and something other people out there in the sun turning wrenches, loading c 17. You know, doing all of our supply work in the public relations communications, it was that Squadron is unique and all the Air Force. Extraordinary
Amanda Huffman 35:34
In such a cool mission.
Nicole Malachowski 35:36
Yeah, and you know, it was always interesting because, you know, after an Air Show, The pilots go to the autograph line. And the six pilots are the ones who people are getting autographs with and people are wanting pictures where they're asking questions to and I'm sitting there thinking man, like, I worked hard for 30 minutes, but I wish I could introduce you to the other hundred and something because I know that they would be equally if not more impressed by what they accomplished. I'm super close. To all my crew chiefs to this very day, I would do any for them. And I remember every time before I would go fly right in for the audience, you know, the crew chiefs climb up the ladder and they strap the pilots in right before the canopy comes down. And my crew chief Dave Patterson, he would always grab my hand, and he would say rock and roll three, which was have a nice flight number three, right wing. That's what I flew. And one day I finally grew up as a fighter pilot. And mostly as an officer, I looked at him, and I said, thanks for letting me borrow your jet. And, you know, it was a really big aha moment. And it was a moment I should have had earlier in my career. But it all came together that and there wasn't another story for the rest of my career in the f6 to the F 15. That I didn't tell my crew chief Thanks for letting me borrow your jet. And it's at that point, I realized in our Air Force, the unique role each of us plays, comes together in this very complex puzzle. And it's all of us that make that happen.
Amanda Huffman 36:51
That's so true. That's so true. So much good, like wisdom and takeaways. You're just throwing them out there.
Nicole Malachowski 36:58
I'm old now, right? I'm 45 By that time you'll be retired and reflect you mentioned, you know, people talk about being the first woman Thunderbird pilot and what that was like. And, you know, it's interesting when I applied to the team, I did not know they hadn't had a female Thunderbird pilot before people tell me that's that's, that can't be true, Nicole, there's no way but I had just been flying in fighter scores. I never knew an Air Force without women fighter pilots in it, right? So it didn't occur to me. And by this time, it was 2005. Like, you got to be kidding. He would have been fine fighter since 93. You're telling me there hadn't been a woman. So when that was during the interview process and application process that kind of became clear to me that if I did do it, I'd be the first I was still blissfully naive. And I think that that was helpful. It was an amazing defense mechanism, because I didn't realize to the rest of the world what a big deal it was going to be. And I'm not to some in the military. Yes, especially the older generation, definitely to the civilian outside world, the interest, the human interest story of it for them was much more than I ever could have imagined and it's really good. I didn't know Thinking about why joined? I get asked a lot, you know, oh my god, it must have been so hard How were the guys and how they treat you and uh, you know I got I'm 45 years old man, I'm retired I'm telling the truth right now I could not have picked a better group of dudes to fly with. These were my brothers. And remember, they had never known an Air Force without women fighter pilots in it either. So having a woman fighter pilot on the Thunderbirds was no big deal to any of us. And I also remind people every time the media would interview me, Nicole, what's it like to be the first one with Thunderbird? I'd give my answer. And they'd immediately turn to the guys and say, guys, what's it like to fly the first female Thunderbird. So it wasn't just extra work or a magnifying glass or pressure on me. It was the same amount of extra work on these guys. they handled it like with true grace and class every step of the way. That first year team was a dream team, friends with every single one of them, and I stay in touch with every single one of them because they helped me through an extraordinary time.
Amanda Huffman 38:56
I mean, I believe you because when I was in the Air Force I deployed with the army And I was with an infantry unit. And like it was like, I guess it was a big deal. But no one told me that it was a big deal. People Yea, I think the military has this, they really do. They just treat you like you're another airman or our soldier or marine and you just do your job and you don't you don't think about like, Am I doing something that's a first woman to do it? Because that doesn't, it just feels natural that you just do your job and
Nicole Malachowski 39:27
I never set out the first woman You're the first woman that was working with the army at that time.
Amanda Huffman 39:33
I mean, I wasn't the first woman to work with the army, but people kind of like they act like well, why didn't you tell the military you didn't want to do I was like, that's how the military works. And I haven't think about like, the fact that I was a woman would prevent me from doing what my job was. I just did my job. And so that makes sense. And even I think the women today who are like joining the infantry, they're not doing it because they want to be the first woman. It's because they like always wanting to be an infantry and now they get the chance to do it and they're doing it
Nicole Malachowski 40:03
and to make their training and to do what they do they have to want it inside from their heart. That's extraordinary. Yeah, you people going to call it you know, what was the pressure, all the pressure? And I'm like, you know I did I had some extra work interviews and that kind of stuff. Okay, fine. It was extra work but not extra pressure per se. The only pressure that I felt is the first woman that ever pilot was the pressure I put on myself for this reason. I knew that if I went in there and somehow messed up, whatever it was messed up in an interview, messed up in a flight wasn't a good representative, the Air Force, whatever that would look like that. It would be a long time. Before there was another woman that came behind me. And that's what I felt. And so the pressure was this. I wanted to be the first woman Thunderbird pilot, whatever that means, right in a way that when I opened the door, the door stayed open. I am not the best fighter pilot in the Air Force never happened. I think we established that early on average. ellenwood here And never the best Thunderbird pilot or the best Thunderbird. But I wanted to be the one that was, you know that if I'm going to do this, I'm going to open the door in a way that the door stays open. That was the only pressure I ever felt was to the women that would come behind me. And every single one, by the way, has been extraordinary. And it's far better than I ever was. It's been nothing but a joy to watch them, you know, take the Thunderbird game to the new level. The current solo pilot mace Michelle Curran, I mean, she's out there just crushing it, and I love it. On the sidelines now the air show and I'm like, You go girl.
Amanda Huffman 41:37
Yeah, that's so cool. And that's so important that Yeah, you opened the door, and then you left it open for the next one, so that more and more women could do what you got the opportunity to do. That's a great way to look at it.
Nicole Malachowski 41:50
I didn't know just manage to be you know, become a fighter pilot. Think about you know, the Genie, the genie Lovitz of the world, the first one, you know, fighter pilot and Martha mcsalley. Think about it. The women Air Force service pilots, right the wasp from World War Two America's you know, first women military aviators, you know, all of them laid a path so that I can do what I do. So the right thing to do is you pass the torch, right, right, wish and hope that they can go further and farther than you ever did.
Amanda Huffman 42:17
Your career was rocking and rolling and things seem to be going on the right path and then all of a sudden, I got sick.
Nicole Malachowski 42:24
Yeah, yeah, my career came to a screeching halt. It was pretty much out of my control. When I was a commander that if 15 years fighter squadron 2012, I started kind of feeling sick. Lots of really weird symptoms of a made sense went to a lot of doctors. During this time. I'm trying to keep my career on track, but we realized that I was no longer viable and it was hard, but I had commanded an F 15 fighter squad. I said, Look, I did everything a fighter pilot wanted to do if I can't fly, and that's fine. I could still lead airman. You know, there's lots of jobs in the Air Force. The vast majority aren't flying planes, right. I could still lead and do that. So I tried to keep my career on track. I went to Navy The War College and found myself at the Pentagon doing what you know Colonel selects do with the Pentagon, a lot of PowerPoint and a lot of meetings. And I got called over one day by the White House to help serve under the First Lady Michelle Obama at that time and Dr. Joe Biden. And during that time, I was really working hard. I'm like, okay, since I can't fly anymore, you know, I'm gonna put on Colonel here, my career still gonna go forward, you got to keep going. And my symptoms just started cascading and growing my symptoms at my very worst, were 63 long on a list. And I've been dealing with these by what, like, more than three years now. And they impacted every system in my body and the doctors really just didn't have a clue what was going on. And then in the summer of 2016, I just finished up working at the White House again, I had to turn down my next assignment from the colonels group, no one could figure out if I was going to stay in the Air Force or not, I was fighting to stay just give me let me go to one more doctor, you know, they're going to figure it out. I'm going to take one pill or get one shot and I'm gonna be back in the air. It's gonna be great. That was where my mindset was until one day in the summer 2016 I woke up in my house, just north of the Pentagon. I was literally like paralyzed. I couldn't move or talk. So like locked in very temporary, but very scary. So to the Air Force's credit, you know, they kind of cut bait and they sent me to Boston, Massachusetts, a lot of great doctors out there, where I was actually accurately diagnosed and started treatment. So I like to tell people my career was gone in the blink of a bite, a bite. Yeah, my amazing career came to a screeching halt and ended literally overnight because of a tick bite. So I've been bitten by a tick in North Carolina, and for four years, the pathogens gave me had been multiplying until it finally got to my brainstem. And that lesion on my brainstem is what led to the severe neurological symptoms I was having. So I'm a survivor of late-stage neurological tick-borne illness. So yeah, a little tick brought down this fighter pilot broke me completely ended my career. Yeah, from the time of when I started getting sick. To the time my diagnosis was 1525 days 24 doctors across eight specialties and three missed diagnoses that point they put a picc line right an IV to my heart high dose antibiotics Home Health Care Nurse spent nine months in bed mostly about 22 hours a day have struggled deeply to read write and talk also had a hard time walking dead another year of rehab to the Air Force's credits. They kept me in the Air Force until I was through all of my therapies and back to kind of maximum benefit. I was saved emotionally and psychologically by the Air Force Wounded Warrior program. Maybe we can talk about that I A plus hundred percent support everything that they do. And more commanders and senior enlisted out there need to know about the program and utilize it to help their airman. It helped me immensely. Anyways, I was laying on a couch when I got the retirement paperwork mailed in a manila envelope to my house. So I was retired and unceremoniously And it was a hard thing, man. I had an extraordinary career to know that a tick did this to know that I was no longer of use, if you will, to the Air Force was a hard thing to swallow. But December 29 2017 was the last day that I was technically on active duty. Yeah, I know. It's a lot to take in, isn't it?
Amanda Huffman 46:19
Isn't it's so hard and kind of so scary that like something that you think like, Oh, you know, I mean, ticks are a big deal. But you know that but then like the gravity of it, it's just
Well I didn't why about ticks or looking for, you know, tick symptoms, or how to protect myself from ticks. my doctor's at the time, unfortunately, you know, the first line doctors, you know, weren't educated or aware on that either. And so I've done what any fighter pilot would do or what any airman would do, because you would do the same. You know, I can't change what happened to me, but I can make it better for other people. So, here I am, two and a half years out of retirement, and I serve as a trained ambassador and mentor with the Air Force wounded warrior. program. Specifically right now. For example, I'm mentoring three airmen who are all being medically discharged for tick-borne illness specifically with that I take that knowledge, and I am happy to say I keep direct contact with the highest levels of leadership in the Air Force. They set up a tiger team to deal with some of the mistakes that were made. In my case, it would be very easy for me to be bitter and cast blame and do all of that. But that doesn't make it better. So I'm happy to say as of last month, not only the Air Force but the defense health agency is going to create a new CME continuing medical education program updated on the latest for tick-borne illnesses so that all of our services frontline medical providers can prevent this from happening to another soldier, sailor, airman or marine. So I've taken lime and limeade, I don't know. I've taken the tick-borne illness and turn it around. It's actually it's my new mission in life. And it's fun and I love it.
Amanda Huffman 47:52
Yeah, it's it's really cool to see how people can take their military experience or even like bad experiences like you had And turn it around. And just like you were saying in your career, like making an impact on the next generation and opening doors for people and that's really cool to hear that you're that you're doing that and that you're making that change. You know,
Nicole Malachowski 48:11
I like to is a mentor and Ambassador with the Air Force Wounded Warrior program. I like to give people hope, right, like, you know, whether you were wounded, ill or injured. None of it's your fault, right? None of you chose to be here. The question is, what can we do now? And I tell my airman, I act like I'm still a colonel, listen to me, I tell my airman. I'm way behind you is always unusable. Right? All you have is the runway in front of you. So let's take a look at not what you can't do because of your illness or your injury. The question is, what can you do? And with that honest assessment, let's decide, you know, on what your reinvention into civilian life looks like. And it's not easy, it's hard. It's daunting, because so much of our identity is wrapped up in that uniform in those boots, and driving onto that base and that ID card and saying I'm an airman I'm a soldier. I'm a sailor I'm a Marine, you know, who are you outside of that uniform and find to go back and do anything differently? I would have answered that question long before I got sick. Yes, yes, yes. And when I go to Air Force bases and I talked to airman today, I just go, you need to be able to answer that question, what gives your life meaning outside of the Air Force in the uniform? And only then, are you able to honestly handle these unexpected challenges that will eventually come everybody's way?
Amanda Huffman 49:26
Yeah. And even like, when you're planning on transitioning like I planned on transitioning, but I, that was the question was like, Who am I now? I'm not Captain Amanda Huffman. I'm just Amanda and I really struggled with like, who I was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go because the military have been telling me for so long and then it was gone, and it was my choice, but I still lost all that.
Nicole Malachowski 49:50
Right. And, and mine was unexpected, but I found myself with the exact same questions Who am I What is my contribution to society now because of my medical issues, I can't go to the airline So how do I provide for my family? And you know, I had a bit of a pity party there December 29 2017. What you don't know in the listeners is I struggle immensely to read and write that's permanent damage to my brain. I have a major balanced deficit, which is kind of funny because I get airsick and carsick and I also have major autonomic dysfunction, all from the brain infection. I knew I couldn't work I couldn't work for normal company who's gonna hire someone that can't really read write who's going to hire someone that can't work full time. And so I realized, you know what, stop asking the who can't what you can't do, what is it you can do, you can speak, you have stories, you still need to lead people write in order for your heart to be fulfilled. What does that look like? That's how I ended up in my current profession. And I love it.
Amanda Huffman 50:43
That's so awesome. This has been such a great interview. And well, I could probably talk to you for another hour.
Nicole Malachowski 50:49
Thank you for your time.
Amanda Huffman 50:50
I want to end the interview with one last question. What would you tell women who are looking to join the military?
Nicole Malachowski 50:57
I would absolutely say if that's what you're Heart is telling you to do then go for it. These are unprecedented times for women in the military, every single career field is open to you. If you follow your dreams, right? You're, you're going to be a trailblazer in a Vanguard, you're going to see the world, you're going to lead people and be on a team, something so extraordinary. can't even imagine part of something bigger than yourself. And along the way, you're going to be making history, which is pretty darn cool. So 100%, I would go for it. I always tell people, you know, women can love their country too. And some of us choose it, you know, choose to show it by wearing our nation's uniform. So we'd love to have more women in our ranks.
Amanda Huffman 51:37
Everyone, thank you so much, again, for being on the podcast. I've loved hearing your story. I didn't really know what to expect. And it's just been so cool to hear about your career and all the different life nuggets that you've pulled away and how you've like overcome the biggest hurdle of having the disease and getting out of the military and made that something positive.
I appreciate that. Thank you very much for the time and most importantly, thank you for what you do with your podcasts and for spreading stories because only through awareness will young ladies know that the military is a great option for them. So thank you for doing that.
Amanda Huffman 52:10
Thank you. Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Women of the Military Podcast. Do you love all things Women in the Military Podcast become a subscriber so you never miss an episode and consider leaving a review. It really helps people find the podcast and helps the podcast to grow. Are you still listening? You could be a part of the mission of telling the stories of military women by joining me on firstname.lastname@example.org slash women of the military or you can order my book Women of the Military on Amazon. Every dollar helps to continue the work I am doing. Are you a business owner? Do you want to get your product or service in front of the women of the military podcast audience get in touch with the Woman of the Military Podcast team to learn more All the links on how you can support Women of the Military podcasts are located in the show notes. Thanks again for listening and for your support.