By Angie Dixon (B.A., ’94)
It is easy to describe Captain Brittany Rhanes, assistant professor of Aerospace Studies for the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at Colorado State University, as a planner.
Born into a military family, Capt Rhanes knew at a very young age that she wanted to continue her family’s military tradition and legacy of serving others. With support from family and friends, by the time Rhanes entered ninth grade, she had enrolled in her school’s drill team and joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Program. She continued her ROTC training through college, and in 2011, Rhanes received her AFROTC commission from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where she became a 2 Lt and would later on become a certified Missile Combat Crew Member. She is also the first female officer in her family. Stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base for training, Capt Rhanes would later be stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana with the 341st Missile Wing where she served, quite literally, as an emergency war order planner.
It is also easy to describe Capt Rhanes as resilient. As a Missile Combat Crew Commander, Rhanes and her team were the ones who would launch missiles if “the real thing” happened. Her job consisted of 24-hour shifts, six to eight times a month, isolated deep underground with another crew member, with no connection to the outside world.
“You really get to know someone,” Rhanes recounts with a smile, “but I am a firm believer of blooming where you are planted.”
Capt Rhanes unabashedly attributes that resilient, optimistic outlook to the support and encouragement she’s received from different mentors throughout her life.
“A lot of times, we can be our own worst enemy,” she said. “I am lucky to have a supportive family, but I’ve also had coaches, neighbors, and other mentors from my community who have encouraged me to be myself and go after my dreams.”
It’s that foundation that supported Capt Rhanes through her unplanned vulvar cancer diagnosis in 2016.
“I just wasn’t feeling quite right,” she said. “I had noticed a lump, but I didn’t think much of it until it grew and became too painful for me to participate in activities.”
Two doctors, three misdiagnoses, and a biopsy later, she was eventually diagnosed with sarcoma of the vulva and referred to a specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, for further treatment.
It was then that Capt Rhanes’ experienced some uncertainty about her life.
“Not that cancer ever comes at a good time, but my cancer came at a really bad time,” she said. “My husband’s mom passed away two years earlier from breast cancer, so I was worried how he would handle this. I also wasn’t sure what would happen to my job and career. I really started to question if I should have made a plan B in my life.”
But Rhanes’ support system gave her the courage to keep fighting.
“My mentors have taught me that when life tests you, you have two choices. To give up or to keep going,” Rhanes recalls. “With my cancer diagnosis, I could have crawled up in a ball, but they gave me the strength to keep going.”
Capt Rhanes is grateful for all she’s learned from cancer.
“Community is my world,” she says as she reflects on the ROTC students she currently teaches and the other volunteering she does for Timberline Windsor Church.
“My diagnosis helped connect me with other young adults, and it’s opened me up to more relationships. That’s where I feel like the lucky one.”