By Master Sgt. Amaani Lyle, Air Force District of Washington Public Affairs
/ Published November 21, 2018
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Fifty years ago, in 1968, iconic singer-songwriter and former Air Force enlistee Johnny Cash recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” at the California State Prison by the same name.
That same year, turmoil unfolded outside prison walls when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.
This was also the year Phyllis Grabowski, now administrative assistant to the Air Force District of Washington Command Surgeon, began her 50-year – and counting – journey into federal service.
Major General James Jacobson, AFDW Commander, assembled members thoughout the command to recognize her 20 Nov. for achieving the rare 50-Year career milestone.
As post-assassination riots ensued in Washington, D.C. and across the nation, Grabowski recalls panic after answering the dreaded phone call regarding her first husband, a Marine who was serving in Vietnam. Back then, such calls meant …
“You had to wait for letters and prayed no one came to your door with bad news,” she said. “I had one phone call; and it was from the Red Cross.”
Ironically, Grabowski, who was faring well and living with her aunt and 1 year-old son, received the call from Red Cross at the behest of her husband, who had heard about the riots and wanted to check on her well-being.
Technology and communication, whether local or overseas, were rudimentary at best, and the District was almost unrecognizable from what it is today.
“I started working in ancient times,” Grabowski recounted. “There was no beltway, no 295, no 495, no subway, and parking was free in most places in D.C.”
At the office, she used manual typewriters to compose memos and carbon paper to make copies. “To make a copy of an existing document we had to run it through a machine and hang the paper up to dry,” she said.
Grabowski remembers her first electric typewriter.
“The darn thing flew out from under me -- there were no computers, no email; everything came from the post office with stamps,” the Washington, D.C. native said. “When they told me I had to use a computer, I almost quit -- I was so afraid of technology.
Grabowski was at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, D.C., when she learned about the first plane crash Sept. 11, 2001, via radio. “A little later I heard a woman scream in the hallway; her brother worked at the Pentagon, and two of my flight docs were also in that building.”
All survived, but the event jarred Grabowski and remains indelibly etched in the nation’s collective consciousness.
After the death of her first husband in 1978, Grabowski married her officemate, Master Sgt. Chester Grabowski, in 1980.
“He said, I’ll show you the world … and I saw every swamp on the East Coast: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia,” Grabowski said. “And then he retired.”
But Grabowski said the trust she soon developed in her second husband stemmed from the way he treated his family. The couple have three children, eight grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
As the Command Surgeon Office moved briefly to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Grabowski continued to work at Joint Base Andrews and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, D.C., before returning to the 79th Medical Wing at JBA in 2008. The wing was deactivated in June 2017.
But Grabowski is not only a dedicated employee in the Air Force medical realm, she’s also been a patient. She described being critically ill with septic shock some years back and staying in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Intensive Care Unit for six days. “No matter what was wrong, I was very confident that the medical professionals both in the Air Force and Walter Reed would just fix it,” she said. “Not a lot of people come through what I did.”
From early aspirations of being a school teacher, to working just blocks from the White House and observing Presidential parades, Grabowski said she has amassed lifelong friends during her career.
“They are scattered all around the world but still keep in touch,” she said. “Some call me ‘Mom’ and some of the young ones call me ‘Grandma,’ which makes me proud.”
Grabowski asserts being in the Air Force afforded her the opportunity to work with and meet some of America’s finest, bravest and most dedicated people. “Being a military spouse myself, I see what sacrifices the military families make -- the constant moving, all the separations, and having your spouse be deployed to serve their country.”
For the time being, Grabowski shows no signs of slowing down.
“I feel God led me to a job that was so rewarding in many ways and I have loved every minute of it.”