Major General Sarah Zabel will be retiring from the Air Force in December of this year, after having completed 31 years of service. Sarah’s journey to this impressive position began when, following graduation from DHS in 1983, she enrolled as a cadet in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. After four years, she received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
Sarah went into the Communications and Computer Systems career field, and her first assignment was as a computer security analyst at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. Her job was to evaluate the security features of systems under development to see how they would behave under a hacking attempt, with the goal of making said systems stronger. After two years in at this job, Sarah spent the next three years as a software engineer in Misawa, Japan. Alongside her job, Sarah was able to experience the Japanese culture and the fellowship of her teammates there. Traveling around the area, Sarah says she saw a lot of Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Hawaii, Guam, to name a few.
Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio was Sarah’s next stop, and she reported there as a captain in 1993. Her role at Kelly was to work on the early phases of “what would someday become cyber operations,” she says. She was assigned to the Electronic Security Command, which became the AF Intelligence Command and then the Air Intelligence Agency.
Throughout her career, Sarah continued to advance her education. While at Kelly, she attended UTSA in the evenings and got her master’s degree in computer science. Then, in 1996, she was assigned to the US European Command, in Stuttgart, Germany, and worked in the Office of Analysis and Simulation. The goal was to analyze logistics plans to make sure the US and her allies could successfully go to war in Europe or Africa if needed.
Being stationed in Germany now gave Sarah an opportunity to travel extensively around Europe, which, she says, she did both as a tourist and with the base ski club. She also spent a few weeks in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where she programmed software for monitoring the movement of refugees for a United Nations effort there.
While on assignment to European Command, Sarah was selected to become the aide-de-camp to the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the command. As a result, she was able to travel with him through Europe and Africa. And in that assignment, she was selected for the rank of major.
In 1998, Sarah departed EUCOM (European Command) and was re-assigned to the US Air Force Academy as an instructor in the Computer Science Department. She subsequently taught computer science for two years, “pinned on major” and gained the academic rank of Assistant Professor.
Again continuing her education, in the summer of 2000, Sarah became a full-time student at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama, and graduated in the summer of 2001 with a master’s degree in Military Operational Arts and Sciences. She then was moved to North Carolina to command the 43rd Communications Squadron at Pope Air Force Base. She explains, “The 43rd Communications Squadron was composed of about 140 officers, enlisted, and Air Force civilians who provided radio communications, telephone, computer, and network services to the 43rd Airlift Wing.” Additionally, they also “supported the meteorological and navigational systems for the airfield.”
Responsibilities expanded as a result of September 11, 2001. With the attacks that occurred on the US, units from the communications squadrons were deployed to the Middle East as part of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
In 2003, Sarah was promoted to lieutenant colonel and re-assigned to the Central Command Air Forces-Forward at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, as Chief of Communications Engineering and Operations. She and her staff were responsible for “extending communications, networking, and airfield systems to the Air Force bases and operating locations throughout the Middle East for OIF and OEF,” she explains.
The next year, Sarah returned to the US and was assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon to work in nuclear command, control, and communications. After a short time in that position, she was re-assigned within the Joint Staff to serve as Deputy Executive Assistant to the Director of Operations, Joint Staff J3.
In 2006, Sarah next moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to attend the Army War College, from which she graduated with a master’s degree in Strategic Studies in 2007. She was then promoted to the rank of colonel and assigned back to the Pentagon, this time in the Air Staff where she worked on planning and budgeting for Air Force communications and information systems. That role required the management of a budget of about $7 billion per year across a five-year outlook.
A year later, Sarah moved out of that role and to Beale Air Force Base, California, to command the 9th Mission Support Group, a group comprised of about 1,200 people providing base support to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing and various tenant units. She elaborates, “This support included police, fire, civil engineering, logistics, transportation, supply, contracting, personnel, food operations, housing, communications, computers and networking to a small industrial city of about 6,000 people.” She adds, “The 9th Reconnaissance Wing flew the U-2 aircraft and the Global Hawk remotely-piloted aircraft, and Beale also played a big role in supporting intelligence processing, especially for the on-going operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Sarah spent two years as Commander of the “9 MSG” before returning to the Pentagon and the Air Staff as the Deputy Director for Cyberspace Operations, “developing policy and coordinating enterprise initiatives for cyberspace infrastructure, capabilities and security for the Air Force.”
After one year there, Sarah moved to Hill Air Force Base in Utah and became the Commander of the 75th Air Base Wing. Proving perspective, she explains, “The Air Base Wing was composed of about 2,400 people, providing the city and base services that the Mission Support Group had at Beale, but on a much larger scale, to two F-16 Fighter Wings, the Ogden Air Logistics Center, and about 60 tenant units, totaling a base population of about 21,000 people…. In addition, the Wing managed the airfield, chaplain, finances and comptroller, munitions, and a variety of staff agencies.”
Sarah humbly states, “It was in this position that I was promoted to Brigadier General.” And in 2013, she was re-assigned to the US Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, as the Director of Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Cyber Systems for that organization. “USTRANSCOM operates a global distribution network to supply war fighters with whatever they need for peacetime and wartime operations,” Sarah states.
In a pattern of advancing and moving from one position to another, after fifteen months in her role with USTRANSCOM, Sarah was re-assigned the Air Staff under the AF Chief Information Officer as the Director of Cyberspace Strategy and Policy. Here, she was “responsible for managing the career fields of approximately 33,000 airmen, developing policy for communications and cyberspace, and implementing cyber security in Air Force systems.”
In the next year, Sarah was promoted to Major General (2-stars) and became the Vice Director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) at Fort Meade. As the Vice Director, Sarah had an awesome responsibility. “I was the number 2 person in a global organization of 16,000 military, civilian and contract personnel who plan, develop, deliver and operate joint, interoperable, command and control capabilities and a global enterprise infrastructure in direct support of the President, Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Combatant Commanders, Department of Defense components and other mission partners across the full spectrum of operations.”
Two years later, Sarah relocated to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington DC, where she now serves. Her role in her current job is “to change the way the Air Force builds and acquires software in order to make us responsive to the needs of war fighters.”
“Looking back on my time in service,” Sarah reflects, “I am really grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given.” She adds, “I’ve traveled the world and gained experiences ranging from being hosted by Ambassadors and top officials of foreign countries to crouching under cover as mortars explode nearby. I’ve hired and fired people and promoted, mentored, and disciplined others. I’ve gained habits of learning and of physical fitness that will serve me for a lifetime.”
Sarah says that she isn’t clear about what her “next career” may be because she has been “too busy finishing up this one….” But, she is looking forward to learning and doing something new.