Service before self lands Arizona colonel Legion of Merit Award

  • Published
  • By Lt. Matt Murphy
  • 161st Air Refueling Wing
"She is a leader behaving like a leader. My most proud thought is that she does nothing for herself," said Brigadier General Michael Colangelo, Commander Air National Guard-Arizona as he presented the Legion of Merit to Colonel Wanda Wright, Director of Staff for the Arizona Air National Guard.
The Legion of Merit is one of only two United States military decorations to be issued as a neck order, the other being the Medal of Honor. The prestigious award is given for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. A special award ceremony was held November 7, 2010 at the Arizona National Guard Headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona to recognize Col. Wright's accomplishments.
An Air Force Academy graduate, Col. Wright spent the first five years of her military career in the fulltime Air Force. She said five years to the day; she switched over to the Air National Guard and for 17 years served in the 162nd Fighter Wing in Tucson before taking her position in Phoenix at the National Guard headquarters in 2005. With plans to retire in the next six months she will have almost 28 years of service leaving a legacy of one of the Air Force primary core values: Service before self.
"She's a punch you in the mouth kind of colonel," says Gen. Colangelo of his colleague and friend who he describes as his right hand and that of his predecessors as well. He describes Col. Wright the same way the former Commander of the Arizona Air National Guard saying there is none better and "one equals ten. No one better, no one more serious about taking care of our national guardsman." He added, "The simple fact is, Col. Wright is one of the most professional and productive individuals he knows."
Col. Wright showed humility about receiving the award by deflecting the recognition of her efforts with focus on her mission as Director of Staff, her team, and the many lives touched during her tenure. "[The award is a] nice surprise. It does validate that you've done good work, but that is my purpose for being here. To provide good customer service to over 2,500 people," said Col. Wright. "The ceremony is not so much about the award as it is seeing the people in the room that have helped me and those that I helped, those I mentored, and those who mentored me - that is the real award."
In her award citation, Col. Wright is credited for her service as Director of Staff responsible for programs supporting more 2,500 personnel, orchestrating relief efforts for hurricanes Katrina and Rita, leading over 4,000 air personnel providing assistance to United States Customs and Border Patrol with immigration issues, and serving as a lead member developing partnerships with the guard and multiple medical and first responder agencies.
During her service, Col. Wright also left an impression on community and family. She describes a work/life balance as difficult on the best of days, but still manages to leave her mark. Husband and fellow guardsman (retired) Curt Clark said, "This award is a reflection of all her hard work and dedication. General Colangelo said it best when he said she does nothing for herself."
Daughter Jordan, 11, said, "It's awesome and makes me feel all bubbly inside." While her son Tyler, 14, said, "She feels great about it and I feel great about it too."
Her friends and neighbors Wayne and Jenifer Hendrix attended the ceremony and said they were honored to be considered part of her family. "We are very proud to be associated with someone who serves," said Wayne Hendrix.
The Legion of Merit award represents a long and distinguished career of service for Col. Wright. In the next six months or so, she says she will move on to "greener pastures" as she retires from one phase of service and looks forward to sharing what she has learned in another field to serve the next generation of future guardsmen.
Col. Wright looks forward to a future with the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps as a high school instructor where she can honor her family's tradition of educators and pay tribute to her parents. She describes her parents as people who love her and raised her in the best way and publicly dedicated her medal to them during the ceremony.
Emails from her mother, father, and siblings were read congratulating Col. Wright on her achievements. Col. Wright's father also retired at the rank of colonel in his military service.
She views her retirement as a "win-win" for many as her legacy will be remembered and her vacancy gives the opportunity for others to move up behind her. "I feel good people will be promoted," says Col. Wright. This attitude and statement is just one more example of her helping others and honoring the core value of service before self.