People sometimes ask Carol Patterson why she's so bossy.
"I got it from the military" -- an influence for which she is not just unapologetic, but proud.
"It was only three years of my life, but I can't tell you how much those three years have meant to my life," Patterson said during a talk last week at Holyoke Community College.
Patterson works as a staff assistant in the HCC Kittredge Center. Unbeknownst to many of her colleagues, however, she once worked as a cryptographer for the Air Force and is a veteran of the war in Vietnam.
"My whole life has been shaped by that," she said.
Patterson spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of mostly women -- including many female vets -- in the Marieb Center at an event celebrating "Women Warriors" sponsored by HCC's New Directions and Pathways programs.
Patterson joined the Air Force in 1969, right after graduating from Holyoke High School. She wasn't the first woman in her family to join the military -- her aunt served in the Air Force during the Korean War -- and she wasn't the last. She didn't realize it at the time, she said, but they were all ground-breakers.
"My aunt cleared the fields for women veterans from my age group," Patterson said. "My generation plowed those fields. My niece planted the fields. And you ladies are harvesting the fields, and I can't tell you how proud we are."
Attitudes toward women in the military were much different back then. For ont thing, women were not allowed to wear fatigues. Skirts, girdles and lipstick were mandatory parts of their uniforms.
"I had to take a class in how to put on makeup," she said. "They taught us how to walk and how to talk, how to be ladies. "
Expectations were for women to work as secretaries, nurses or teachers. Patterson, however, was trained to decode encrypted messages.
"I was the only female cryptographer at the time," she said. "I have no idea why they picked me."
Even though women suffered many indignities in the service, Patterson said she enjoyed her time. "I knew all the pilots. I got to fly everywhere for free. That was the fun part."
What wasn't so much fun was the institutional discrimination. After receiving her orders to go overseas, Sgt. Patterson spent 24 hours on a flight to Korea, arriving in desperate need of a "hot and a cot." The commanding officer, however, refused to let her stay and ordered her immediate return to the U.S.
Fortunately, another officer commanding a unit on its way to Vietnam needed a cryptographer. She volunteered and spent the next three months working in Da Nang.
"He was one man who didn't see a woman; he saw someone who could do a job," she said.
In high school, Patterson had been shy, a bookworm and wallflower, someone who would never talk back to anyone.
Three years in the Air Force, she said, taught her to command presence.
"In the military," she said, "I learned how to be independent. "
Before she came to HCC, she worked as a general manager for a national corporation.
"I get things done," she said.
After her military service, Patterson had been a stay at home mom, then a divorced mother with two young children, working two jobs to make ends meet. She earned her college degree in 1978.
"Two things that will serve you well in life: a college degree and being a vet," she said. "It opens the door every time. Make sure you always put that down."
One of Patterson's cherished tokens from her time in the Air Force is a paper target of a man's head and torso riddled with bullet holes. Even though women didn't carry weapons, then, she was once granted a rare opportunity to take a firearms class at an artillery range, where she hit the target more times than any man in the group.
"Any time I'm down, I take it out and look at that and say, 'If I can do this, I can do anything."
Photos: (Left) Carol Patterson, a staff assistant at the Kittredge Center, talks about her experience in the U.S. military. (Right) Patterson talks to HCC student Hannah Graydon, a member of the Air National Guard.