Vietnam vet found direction in military

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Diane Blume of Kyana holds a page of photographs taken of her. The top left photograph was taken her junior year of high school. The top right photograph was taken when she received her first stripes after six weeks in basic training. The bottom left photograph was taken her senior year of high school. The two newspaper clippings on the bottom right were published in The Herald after enlisting and after she completed her basic training.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

KYANA — It’s been 50 years, but Air Force veteran Diane Blume of Kyana still can’t watch war movies.

The films remind the 67-year-old of the violence she saw at age 18 as an airman during the Vietnam War. Her units were involved in Operation Linebacker I and Linebacker II, and the B-52s took a beating, she recalled.

Diane Blume of Kyana poses for a portrait on Nov. 30. Blume served in the U.S. Air Force from 1970-1990. Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald

“I learned at a very early age about war, and to this day, I cannot sit down and watch a military movie,” she said. “I just ... I can’t do it. It’s so senseless to me, all the people who die for no reason.”

Despite her experience with war in the early days of her service, Diane stayed in the Air Force for 20 years, finally retiring in 1990. By then, she’d served across the U.S. and had done a few tours in Germany. She’d also been married to a fellow airman — the couple eventually divorced — and had two children, the late Christopher Mays and Amy Stenftenagel of Huntingburg.

Were it not for her two children, she said, she wouldn’t have retired in 1990. But she had a short tour coming up, and as a single mom with no one to watch her children while she was away, she figured it was time. She moved with her children to Kyana and the home where she grew up and took care of her ailing parents, Mary and Urban Klem. She also met her third husband, Robert Blume — an Army veteran — and now has two stepsons, Brian Wahl from her second marriage and Robert’s son, Tyler.

Sitting in the living room of the home where she grew up, Diane recalled how her mother prepared her for the service. Mary and Urban had 10 children. To rein in the chaos, Mary ran a tight ship. Diane remembers working around the house, gardening and raising chickens. The family didn’t have much money, so they raised most of their own food. Diane also remembers how strict her mother was when it came to household chores. If she found a dirty dish after the children had done dishes, all 10 of them had to get up and come rewash every dish.

“My drill sergeants were nothing compared to my mother, bless her heart,” she said.

When Diane told her mother she wanted to join the Air Force, her mother refused to sign the paperwork until Diane turned 18. But as soon as she celebrated her 18th birthday, she was gone.

“It sounds bad, but I didn’t want to be barefoot and pregnant with a bunch of kids,” Diane said. “That was really the future for most of us around here at that time if you couldn’t afford to go to college.”

In 1970, Diane estimates she was one of about 10,000 in the entire United States Air Force, and she never had more than 10 other women on base with her at a time. It just wasn’t common for women to join the military in the 1970s, she said, and there were some growing pains. When she filled out paperwork to join, for example, she had to send in a photo of herself wearing a skirt so the government could make sure she “fit the image.”

“That was considered chauvinistic about the mid-70s,” she said.

She also couldn’t be pregnant, and if she got pregnant, she would be kicked out. That rule changed during her career, however, and by the time she had Christopher and Amy in the 1980s, mothers were allowed in the military. Now, she said, single moms are even allowed to join.

In the 1970s, the roles women were allowed to fill were also limited to administrative, communication, supply and finance work. They couldn’t be pilots or have combat roles. That was fine with Diane.

“I am not a fan of the women in combat,” she said. “But I’m not a fan of the men in combat, either. It’s not good either way.”

She spent her career in various administrative roles, such as administrative clerk, wing flight records clerk and aircraft dispatcher. As she got higher in rank — she was an E7 master sergeant when she retired — she moved into airfield management.

“When you’re in the air force, every four years they try to move you,” she said. “You don’t have to move, but I applied because I got bored. Once you master something, there’s no challenge in it anymore.”

Looking back on her service, Diane has a hard time picking a favorite assignment, but serving at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany comes to mind. There, she was a nuclear airlift scheduler and worked with other countries to gain clearance for U.S. aircraft to fly through foreign air space. That was also the one place she encountered a boss she couldn’t work with. He was a Mormon major, and he didn’t believe women should be in positions of authority. Due to his belief, she said, he frequently broke the chain of command to go around her and prevented her from doing her job. Finally, she went into the base manager’s office and asked for a transfer.

“You can’t work for somebody who first of all doesn’t respect you, and doesn’t respect women in general,” she said. “I understood why he was like that, but you can’t be that way. They put a man under him, and he was fine. It happens. You can’t prevent things like that. You just have to circumvent them.”

That was an extreme case, she said. For the most part, she said, women just had to work a lot harder than their male peers to prove they belonged in the military, too.

Thankfully, she was pretty good at biting her tongue and just getting the job done. Only twice did she ever almost lose control. The first came at the end of a long day of mopping and waxing the floors. A sergeant major walked in, sat down with his feet up and smoked a cigarette. Then, he told her she’d missed a spot. She was walking toward him with the push broom raised over her shoulder when a friend grabbed her from behind and pulled her out of the room.

The second time she almost lost control, she was in Germany working airfield management. She’d told a special forces soldier under her no, and he didn’t like her answer.

“I don’t even remember now what he wanted, but I had already told him no two or three times,” she said. “He was just following me down the hallway just yap, yap, yap, yap yap.”

Finally, she turned around with her first raised, and one the secretaries stopped her.

Both times, Diane said, she was simply sent home to cool off, and she’s grateful to this day to the two friends who stopped her from making major mistakes.

After retirement, she had a difficult time transitioning back into civilian life. Back in Dubois County, she took a job at a furniture factory and ended up managing a group of women. That was new, she said, since in the military she’d mostly managed men. In the civilian world, she also encountered a lack of discipline and clear objectives in the workplace.

“In the military, you just know where you’re going, what direction you’re going, and you know the rules,” she said. “Out here, the rules aren’t so cut and dry.”

Eventually, she adjusted, and she credits her time in the military with the success she’s found throughout her life. Now, she’s fully retired and spends her days babysitting six of her 10 grandchildren in the home where she grew up. She doesn’t know if any of them will follow in her footsteps and join the military — they’re still little — and she doesn’t mind either way. For now, she’s enjoying just watching them grow up.




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com