When members of Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, Arizona, learned a retired master sergeant would be turning 100 years old during the state’s stay-at-home order, they knew they had to do something to make her day special.
“It’s not everyday someone turns 100,” said 2nd Lt. Kaitlynn Williams, an airfield operations officer at Luke.
Williams led an effort to collect 100 letters to honor the 100th birthday of retired Master Sgt. Ruth Heeler, a combat photographer who achieved several firsts for women in the military.
“Even though we can’t celebrate the way we want to with a big party and people in-person — despite everything going on — we want her to know she is being celebrated all across the world today,” Williams said.
Unable to have visitors due to COVID-19, Luke Airmen surprised Heeler by holding signs and singing Happy Birthday six feet away from the front door of the assisted living center where she resides in Peoria, Arizona.
“It’s the next generation — maybe two generations away,” Heeler said in surprise as she stepped a little closer to the doorway. “I’m glad I wore my hearing aid today.”
After the singing, Heeler shared a few memories from her days wearing the uniform.
“On one of my jumps someone said, ‘Yell Geronimo,’ and I said, 'I’m too frightened. I can’t even yell.'"
As a technical sergeant in 1966, Ruth became the only woman at the time to fly as a crew member in the Air Force. In 1969, she became the first woman to complete survival training — the same as men — for land, air and water.
“She paved the way for us,” said 2nd Lt. Katy Davit, a force support officer at Luke. “She didn’t have a traditional job like a nurse. The start of women in the military going into other career fields was through people like her.”
Heeler's military career spanned 37 years, beginning in 1943, through to her retirement in 1980, and included the following major U.S. wars and campaigns: World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban Revolution (including the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis) and the Vietnam War.
As a documentary still photographer, Heeler's responsibilities ranged from covering troop movements and disaster areas to the routine duty of taking portraits of general officers. While with the Reconnaissance sector from 1955-1958, Ruth processed pictures from various wars and campaigns.
There is a painting of her in the Air Force Art Collection from 1965, with the description: Sergeant Ruth M. Heeler, 1365 Still Photo Technician At Orlando Air Force Base, Florida In 1965.
“Having a career and excelling in it, her service didn’t just end with that,” said 2nd Lt. Ben Conlin, an airfield operations officers at Luke. “She chartered an organization to help future generations of women.”
Heeler is a lifelong supporter of preserving women’s history in the military and is a charter member of The Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.
Founded in 1985, the foundation raised the funds for, built and now operates and maintains The Women’s Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, honoring all women who have defended America.
“After World War II, we realized women can do anything a man can do,” Heeler said. “We had to brag about it a little bit.”
With a goal of collecting 100 letters for 100 years, Williams handed off a folder of about 50 letters to Heeler's caretaker. Other letter writers opted to mail Ruth directly.
“Gathering (letters) was inspiring to see how she continues to impact people today, from right here in Arizona,” Williams said. “We got letters from all over the world — Japan, Germany and Africa.”
Williams requested those sending letters include photos of themselves in uniform to give Heeler a real sense of what she helped make possible.
Later that afternoon, Williams received news that Heeler had received 80 additional letters in the mail.
On reaching her 100th year, Heeler said, “It gets a little harder to do things, but they can still be done with a little help.”
When it was time for the Airmen to return to the base, Ruth encouraged them to, “Come back again next year.”