By Cameron Hunt
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Tonya Bonner, 21st Force Support Squadron military personnel flight chief, serves over 2,900 Department of Defense civilian and military retirees with a staff of 20 employees.
Though her life didn’t start out at the top, Bonner didn’t let that stop her from moving up in life.
Bonner was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio by a single mother with the help of her aunts and neighbors. Her mother later explained to her that her family grew up poor. Up until that point, she said she didn’t understand the concept of what poor was, Bonner said.
“We were poor but my brother and I never realized it then, even after it was explained to us, we didn’t understand just what that was, until we got older. We were raised in church, which gave us a foundation for prayer and belonging.” Bonner said. “I’ve always known that I was destined for great things, that I was blessed.”
Beginning her career in civil service as a newly divorced, single mom, Bonner rose through the civilian ranks to eventually lead a civilian personnel office after joining the Army.
“I went straight into college after high school but needed money to support my family; I knew a friend who had joined the Army and had convinced me to join.” Bonner said. “I didn’t break the news to my family for six months after I had joined secretly.”
Her family’s initial response was disappointment, since they had groomed her for college early on. Only her uncle, a veteran, supported her decision.
Bonner’s first years in the Army came with challenges; her first assignment in 1983 was at Fort Carson, Colorado. She served in the 4th Infantry Division Artillery as a communications technician.
“Females weren’t widely welcomed in the Army back then, the males within the unit rebelled against my presence. To appease the male majority there, I was sent off to staff duty as an administration specialist. That’s how I got my start in administration and remained in that career field ever since,” Bonner said. “Then my mom passed away, within my first year of being in service. I was 20 years old and didn’t know how I would survive. But somehow, with God’s help, I withstood the adversity and was able to thrive. I hope that in my life, I’ve made my mom proud.”
Bonner served in the Army for four years and nine months, but later continued to work within the Army as a civilian military spouse. Her husband was deployed to Wurzburg, Germany, where she got her start working on base as a personnel clerk under the Non-Appropriated Fund section. Soon after, she migrated over to the Appropriated Fund side as a staffing clerk in the Civilian Personnel Office.
When her husband’s tour was complete in Germany, they returned to Colorado Springs, where she got hired at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“It’s just amazing how things just happen almost coincidentally and it’s been like that ever since. I promise you, God is good,” said Bonner, who credits her education as a pivotal role in advancing her career throughout the years.
Bonner earned a Bachelor of Science in organizational management from Colorado Christian University in 1995. Soon after, she participated in a career developmental program. However, shortly after entering the program she and her first husband divorced in 1998.
“I remember that I was a mess during that time. Mounting bills, fears of raising a child alone, feeling like a failure, and on top of all that, having issues at work for coming in late due to lack of sleep,” Bonner said. “But thank God I had a great church family to help me through those tough times.”
She eventually remarried to a retired Air Force chief master sergeant named Michael Bonner.
As a way to develop their personal interviewing skills, she and a colleague decided to apply for jobs as a form of practice. This resulted in an actual job offer at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, in the Employee Management Relations section. Bonner then became the lead of Employee Management Relations section in 2005.
Upon the downsizing of positions within the Civilian Personnel Office in 2007, she took another position back at the Air Force Academy as the Equal Employment Opportunity officer. Six months later she was offered a position to return to Peterson AFB as a Civilian Personnel officer but turned it down to continue supporting the 10th Air Base Wing commander.
Three months later, Polly Case, the Civilian Personnel officer at Peterson AFB reached out to her again for the chief of Employee Management Relations position.
On Aug. 17, 2008, she officially became the Civilian Personnel chief at Peterson AFB. She attributes her good fortune to her faith in God and her staff.
“This team is phenomenal with great leaders like Sharon Bowman, Ellen Sommers, Maribel Isabell, several retirees, military spouses and my wounded warrior. We have a very smart, diverse staff here,” Bonner said.
The future for Bonner includes retirement, traveling, volunteering and completing home projects.
She gave this advice to young women within government service: “Your circumstances, regardless of how adverse they may seem in the moment, does not dictate how high you can climb in life.” Bonner said. “Having a great support system is a must. This can be family, friends, colleagues, church members and even using professional help as a source. Do whatever it takes to keep your mind and spirit at peace. I’ve learned simply to treat people how you want to be treated and trust God.”