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The late 1940s and 1950s saw wide-ranging changed in the enlisted force. With the introduction of the rank of Airman, the newly independent U.S. Air Force created a new rank structure for the enlisted. It incorporated new policies to improve the lives of airmen, such as a 20-year retirement, pay rates, quarters and subsistence pay, and the Airmen Career Program, which provided the enlisted person a clear occupational path. With military desegregation, opportunities for minority airmen progressively improved. In addition, the Women's Armed Service Integration Act officially confirmed the role of women in the military. In 1960 Grace A. Peterson became the Air Force's first female Chief Master Sergeant.

The 1960s and 1970s saw further specialization among airmen as increasingly complicated aircraft and systems were introduced, such as the SR-71 Blackbird and the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. In addition, lessons learned in the war in Vietnam brought a second round of significant changes to the enlisted component in the 1980s.

One of these changes was to entrust the enlisted force with greater authority to make decisions. This confidence in the airmen was vindicated during the Gulf War in 1990-1991. As Gen. Charles A. Horner related, "Our leaders put people at the lowest level in charge of the Air Force. In Desert Storm the results were spectacular -- people were truly empowered."

The enlisted component of the U.S. Air Force has been through great changes over the past 90 years. Today, the composition of the Air Force airmen reflects the society that it protects, and through increased responsibility and reliance, is an indispensable part of our nation's Air Force.

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