Carolann Wunderlin can say without hesitation that she danced her way through her time in the United States Air Force.
While serving at Elmendorf Air Force Base (AFB) in Alaska in 1979, she entered and won base and command-wide talent contests. She went on to become a finalist in the branch’s worldwide “Tops in Blue” event that same year. She didn’t win that one, but found the experience rewarding and ultimately beneficial to her job today – as the manager for the Airman and Family Readiness Program, 129th Rescue Wing, California Moffett Air National Guard Base in Mountain View.
How so? Because dancing, among other things, involves mastering steps and process. Wunderlin now helps guide Air National Guard members through the steps and processes as they prepare to leave the military and transition into civilian life. Having made that transition herself, she understands the trepidation and uncertainty many face.
“My own transition from the military was not easy at all,” Wunderlin said. “The Air Force – the military – was in my DNA. The transition was emotional.”
The daughter of a Blue Water Navy veteran, she chose the Air Force instead, using the Delayed Enlistment program in 1977 while still in high school.
“I wasn’t a good swimmer,” she joked.
After basic training in Texas and technical school in Mississippi, she went to Elmendorf AFB in 1978, earning Airman of the Month and Airman of the Quarter honors there. As her two-year tour ended, she applied for a special duty assignment at the Air Force Academy in Fort Collins, Colorado. There, she volunteered to retrain to become a substance abuse counselor, and in 1982 became the first woman non-commissioned officer in command of the Academy’s permanent party (non-cadets) Drug and Alcohol Program.
She left the Air Force in 1984, when she married an Air Force Academy alum and went with him to South Korea. There, she worked in a residential treatment facility. When they returned stateside in 1985, she worked in civilian jobs at Fort Ord in Monterey, Naval Air Station Moffett Field in Mountain View, and Onizuka Air Station in Sunnyvale, and finally as an Air Force Aid officer at Moffett before settling into the position she has held for the past two decades.
Wunderlin considers helping people her life’s work. She volunteers as a victim advocate. She is active in community service including leadership roles in the American Legion. She remains active in veterans and military causes, issues involving women in the military and women veterans.
Her daily dance, however, is working with those getting ready to leave the Air National Guard, and to make that often difficult transition to the civilian world.
“I follow a process from the Department of Defense,” she said. “I do briefings, as they separate, about the impacts of the change they’ll face.”
Some have been in the military for three or more decades.
“They come to me and I ask them, ‘What’s next?’” she said. Many times their response is, “I’ll find me a job” or “kick it (around) for a while and figure things out.”
Some will say they want to travel or do things around the house. She counsels them to set goals, use their veterans benefits, and to have plans.
Wunderlin gives them an overview of what they will face, what resources are available. She points them towards transition assistance programs including CalVet’s CalTAP, federal Veterans Affairs benefits, and other available resources.
“Retirement or separation is a significant life event,” Wunderlin said. “It can be a mean street, coupled with the habit of service before self. They’ll be 60 to 90 days out, still taking care of their troops and not taking care of their transition. It’s all they have known.”
She explains what lies ahead and how to negotiate the impending change; in essence, choreographing step by step, as they TAP dance their way into civilian life.