Air Traffic Control mom balances career, family

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jessica Hines
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
"The doctor called her a miracle baby," said Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Rowles of her three-year-old daughter, Emma.

Not expecting she would ever conceive a child due to medical reasons, Rowles, 31st Operation Support Squadron NCO in charge of air traffic controller training and standardization, and a Philadelphia native, was fully engaged in her career at Aviano Air Base when she learned of her pregnancy three years ago.

"The chances of me getting pregnant and having a healthy baby were, like, 2 percent," she said. "When I got into the Air Force, babies weren't even on my mind; it was my career."

More than 11 years after joining the Air Force, Rowles continues to master the fast-paced, multi-tasking world of ATC as an NCO. Today, this internationally trained controller continues to master her next global challenge - motherhood.

"I was actually getting ready to deploy when I found out I was pregnant," said Rowles, who was immediately taken off the deployment tasking and placed in a high-risk pregnancy status by her doctors. "It was a very scary time in the beginning," she added.

Married to an Italian Air Force service member who is a fellow air traffic controller, both Rowles and her husband had to make some tough decisions in order to keep their growing family together.

"In order to get a follow-on [assignment] back to Aviano, because they were going to separate us, I took a remote [assignment] to Incirlik Air Base for 15 months," she said.

Leaving for Turkey when her daughter was only 8 and a half months old, Rowles suffered separation anxiety, but admits that the assignment was still a great experience and not only helped her improve as an ATC, but strengthened her marriage as well.

"At first it was really hard for our marriage, but I definitely think it made us stronger," she said.

Through daily video chatting and with support from both of their commands and their local community at Aviano, Rowles, her husband and their daughter made it through the long separation.

"If we can go through that we can go through anything," she said.

Her husband, Marshal 2nd Class Nicola Alberto Neroni, laughingly admits that while those months alone with his daughter made him a better parent, ultimately he says they "made me a better mother, for sure."

In the months before she left for Turkey, Rowles and her husband faced the challenge of working with changing work schedules and finding baby sitters after hours.

"We're a really small community and, until recently, I was the only female in both facilities [tower and radar], it was a real challenge unless you knew somebody," said Rowles.

She credits the tremendous support from the women at the child development center and even calls one of them her "angel in disguise" for efforts during the first few months after her daughter was born.

While her family is number one in her life, Rowles' dedication to her career has not changed.

"I absolutely love my job. I've gone from a trainee, to an ATC on-crew to a watch supervisor, who is basically in charge of the entire crew up in the tower, and now I'm in charge of all the controllers training and evaluations," she said.

To Rowles, being a controller requires much more than being book smart.

"It's a lot of rules and regulations; you can memorize a book and not be a good controller. People either have it or they don't, that's why there's such a high wash out rate," she said.

Describing it as a lightbulb moment, Rowles recalls the feeling when, to her, the planes slowed down and everything clicked.

"During training you have all these rules and regulations you're trying to apply and everything is moving so fast, then one day, miraculously, everything slows down and the light goes on," said Rowles snapping her fingers in the air. "It's like you can actually see the planes slow down."

"ATC is not for everyone, even I thought it was impossible, but with hard work and dedication I made it," she said. "I learn something new every day."

As an ATC, Rowles has tapped into her multi-tasking training to help balance the "rules and regulations" of motherhood. She says that each day is an effort to continually establish a workable routine that allows her to grow as a wife, mother and NCO.

Just seven months after returning to Aviano from Turkey, Rowles continues to overcome the unique challenges of being a military mother overseas in a joint-service marriage. Her small family still faces many questions about where they might be years from now, but Rowles remains optimistic, leaning on the strong leadership and ATC family she has come to know.

"I believe that when you have challenges that come with family, [leadership] will work with you in whatever means," said Rowles. "It takes a lot of wiggle to make it work but I definitely think that if you have a solid chain of command and support from your team - anything is possible."