EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
With over 28 years in service, Chief Master Sgt. Mary Belt, the 354th Mission Support Group senior enlisted leader, has established herself as one of the most dedicated and beloved leaders serving today.
Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Belt never knew her mom, who passed away two days after she was born. However, she was fortunate to later be part of a blended family. Her father married her step mother when she was 7 years old and she lived most of her early years in Durango, Iowa, along with her five siblings. At 47 years old, she’s the youngest of all her siblings with the oldest being 70.
“I didn’t realize as a child, but as you grow up in a family with a huge age gap and a mother who grew up during the Great Depression, appreciating the little things in life is something I don’t take for granted. I was told that you need to work hard, never give up and be kind. Also, my mother always told us that you don’t go to somebody’s house without bringing something and you always send a ‘thank you’ note,” said Belt. “Those values that my parents instilled in me, I still carry to this day.”
Driven by her desire to travel and go to college, Belt decided to talk to an Air Force recruiter and enlisted at the age of 18 without telling anyone. The surprise caught her family off guard but was eventually welcomed. In August of 1993, she took the bus to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and the trajectory of her life was changed forever.
“My life changed from selling shoes, graduating high school, to this. Never in a million years did I think that this is where I would be now,” she said.
Shortly after graduating basic military training, Belt went to Keesler AFB, Mississippi, for technical training to become an information management specialist.
While at her first operational assignment at McConnell AFB, Kansas, Belt gave birth to her firstborn, Austin, now 27 years old, who she devotedly raised as a single mom.
“My son was born in 1995 while I was at McConnell. I was a single mom,” she said. “It was a struggle, but it was a struggle I would do again. I didn’t let that moment define my career. I just continued to do my job and do it well.”
Belt expressed her gratitude to then-Chief Scott and his wife, Belinda, who lent a helping hand in taking care of her and her son during one of the most challenging times of her life.
“Leaders like them are why I am the way I am. They saw an airman first class struggling and didn’t hesitate to take me under their wings. Chief and Belinda gave so much during that stressful part of my life, basic needs, like food and diapers for my kiddo, a shoulder to cry on, feedback I needed to hear, and confidence in myself that I can do this. I swore to myself that I was going to give back when I can, to those that need it. It’s what I do. If they didn’t come into my life 27 years ago, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” said Belt.
A few years after being awarded Senior Airman ‘Below the Zone’, an early promotion afforded to Airmen who show exceptional performance, she was bound to Italy where she started another chapter in her life.
”Being stationed at Naples, Italy, was a very fulfilling tour. I was promoted to staff sergeant while I was there. But it’s also where I married my best friend and started the next part of my life,” she said.
From the time she was an E-4 until she became an E-7, Belt’s primary job was to provide general officer support. This entailed preparing and organizing itineraries for commanders and accompanying them wherever the mission needed them.
”While I was at NATO working in protocol, we would go to countries that fell under the southern region area of responsibility. So I was very fortunate to go to France, Spain, Greece and Portugal. I would go and set up these events with our team. It was hard work, but it was an amazing experience,” said Belt. “The countries, the leaders that you meet and just embracing every culture at every location was just amazing. This was when my years of working for general officers started.”
Despite having to frequently travel and constantly move from one place to another, Belt never forgot to show appreciation to her family for the willingness and sacrifice that come with being in a military family.
“If I have to say who my heroes are, it’s my kiddos and my husband because they’re the ones who are uprooted from schools, change jobs and don’t complain about it at all. And they’ve been doing this for almost 29 years,” said Belt.
Toward the end of her 12-year tour in Europe, Belt was offered an opportunity to pursue something she had been longing to do in her Air Force career.
“Every time a general officer would retire they would ask me, ‘Mary, what can I do for you?’, I’d then respond, ‘I just want to lead Airmen. Can I have an Airman to lead? I would really like to supervise and lead,’” said Belt.
Then-Master Sgt. Belt received orders to return stateside, and spent a year and a half in executive services for the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott AFB, Illinois. A step closer to her dream of taking Airmen under her wing.
As soon as she became the knowledge management section chief for the 375th Communications Squadron, she found herself leading not one, but 45 Airmen with diverse backgrounds.
”The best part of leading this team was helping solve some diversity challenges in that office. But I just came in with open arms and ears. ‘What do we want to do? What can we do to make the office a better place for you to work?’ And I listened,” said Belt. “I let the Airmen tell me where they felt the problems were and I let some of their ideas become the solutions. It took some hard work, but with time, our section was back in the game; they were thriving, being awarded and happy to be at work. Being part of that section and watching the Airmen grow is a pinnacle part of my career.”
For her next assignment, Belt received orders to Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, where she experienced serving in a joint environment for the first time.
“The biggest challenge working in a joint environment was getting other services to understand how the Air Force works. It may have ended with a few yelling matches but at the end of the day my Airmen were taken care of,” said Belt. “That one really bothered me. I’d never had to defend why I take care of Airmen to another E-9 until then. It was very frustrating for me.”
In June 2019, she received orders to Eielson as the 354th Communications Squadron superintendent. The following year, she was selected to become the 354th MSG senior enlisted leader, which she believes is the best way to end her almost three decades of military service.
”I’m in the best job to finish my career. In the MSG, we are the heartbeat of the installation,” Belt said. “Every group has challenges and we have taken our challenges on with determination, perseverance and grit. Though some of the challenges have been extreme, we have come a long way in the last two years. Our group is so mighty that we can move mountains. I am extremely proud of our team and the dedication each Airman brings every day. They are what makes me excited to come to work and do the best for them, as their chief.”
Those who’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work alongside Belt in their careers, whether as an Airman, a peer, or a mentor, could attest to her exceptional leadership and amazing character.
”My reason for enlisting at the time was to go to school and to travel, do something different and make my family proud. And then it turned into my purpose. I was meant to serve. I was meant to lead Airmen,” said Belt. “Everything we do is bigger than ourselves. That’s what makes our Air Force the best force in the world and people should be very proud to wear this uniform. I know I am.”