Colonel Melanie “M.J.” Ellis and daughter Zoe after Saturday’s Air Force Marathon. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED

Archdeacon: The Colonel and her daughter: ‘Wingmen For Life’

The backs of the matching blue T-shirts that M.J. and Zoe Ellis wore read:

Mother & Daughter Airmen

Wingmen For Life

What the shirts didn’t say was that M.J. – as she introduced herself, while never mentioning her rank – was Colonel Melanie J. Ellis, the highly respected and honored physician assistant who is stationed at Randolph Air Force Base outside of San Antonio.


She is the chief of the Biomedical Science Corps & the Enlisted Medical Career Management branch and during her 33-year military career, she has had several intense and impactful experiences around the world.

A 20-year-old senior airman who is a physical therapist specialist, Zoe is stationed at Sheppard AFB near Wichita Falls, Texas, but soon will head to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska.

Saturday the pair ran their third straight Air Force Half Marathon.

“We’re both active duty so I think this is awesome that we’re able to both come here and do this together,” Zoe said before the race. “I wouldn’t do this with anybody else. It’s my favorite part of the year. We get out of Texas and become civilians for a little bit.”

They are part of an Air Force family. Col. Ellis’ husband, Zack, retired from the Air Force after 15 years as a medic. And her son Ethan is a boom operator currently stationed at Travis AFB in California. Her oldest daughter, Sydney, opted for a career outside the military

When she first joined the Air Force, Col. Ellis said she did it because “I was looking for adventure.”

And she has found plenty of it in a career that has taken her to Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Botswana, Ghana, Belgium and Oman, among other places.

Her first overseas assignment was to Belgium where she became the first PA – and one of the first women — to take an executive role in NATO. Before that the job went to a physician.

In Botswana, where she worked as an international health specialist, she mentored the first woman member of the Botswana Defense Force and helped her champion the standards for other women to follow.

She was involved in flood relief in Pakistan and facilitated the evacuation of the wounded and dead after the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi in 2012.

And in 1994 – in an incident that now sadly resonates here in the Oregon District – she endured a gunman’s attack on the hospital where she worked at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington.

Outside of her office, a former airman repeatedly fired a MAK 90 semiautomatic rifle with a 75 round drum magazine. He killed four people and injured 22 before he was killed.

She helped treat the wounded and took the most seriously injured to a makeshift helicopter pad so they could be airlifted to a Spokane hospital

Twenty years later – while stationed st Misawa Air Base in Japan – she was named the 2014 Federal Service PA of the Year by the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the national group that represents more than 123,000 certified PAs.

“In all my years of federal service, I have never worked with a physician assistant who comes close to her vision, confidence, talent, experience and leadership ability,” Colonel Alden Hilton, MD and commander of the 35th Medical Group, said at the time. “She has brilliance, tenacity and dedication. She is the best of the best.”

Back then, Ellis had a simple explanation for her embrace of the job:

“I try to treat my patients like they were my mother or my father, my brother or my sister. If you do that, you will more than meet the needs of the patient.”

Running for fun

Dovetailing a career in the Air Force and the role of motherhood has been difficult at times, Col. Ellis admitted:

“It’s absolutely challenging trying to decide what’s most important. Family is, but that’s not always easy.

“For me, I have a very supportive husband and after a certain point in time, he quit his job and became a stay-at-home dad. He actually homeschooled the kids for a while.”

Zoe said she lived overseas for seven years when her mom was stationed at various bases.

When she graduated from high school, she said her parents told her they weren’t paying for her college: “I was like, ‘Well. I’ll go to the Air Force and figure out what I want to do with my life. Then I can either get out and go on to college or I can make a career of it.”

When Zoe was in tech school she said she got a call from her mom, asking if she’d like to run the Air Force Half Marathon with her:

“I thought she was kidding, so I said. ‘Yeah, whatever.’”

Her mom was serious: “It was on my bucket list.”

She said she and Zoe also have climbed Mount Fuji and skied all over Japan, too.

But the Air Force Marathon soon became a special outing for mother and daughter.

Along with the race, they like to explore the area, go shopping and go out to eat.

They have become regulars at the Findlay Market in Cincinnati and this year made it to the 2nd Street Market here and Young’s Jersey Dairy outside Yellow Springs.

Sunday, before taking an evening flight back to Texas, they explored downtown Dayton and Yellow Springs.

As for the race, Col. Ellis made their goal clear just before the start:

“We’re not doing it for the time, we do it for the fun.”

Then she added a qualifier: “And I come here for the bacon. Usually at mile 5 or 6 or so they have bacon. This year they changed the course so I don’t know.

“I hope there’s still bacon.”

A long race

In the two previous years, mother and daughter have each motivated the other to finish

“Oh yeah, we’re wingmen,” Col. Ellis said with a smile.

“A couple of times I’ve had to kind of drag her,” Zoe grinned.

Col, Ellis nodded: “At about mile 10 she’s like, ‘Mom, c’mon we can do this!’”

But Saturday the roles were reversed.

When the race was delayed because of a downpour – and lightning – everybody’s shoes got soaked. For Zoe that would be problematic later.

Then about three miles into the race she needed to use the bathroom.

Along the course, she found a portable facility with a line of five people.

“I told mom to go on and I’d catch up,” she said. “But the people ahead of me took forever and I really had to chase her after that.”

Her mom nodded: “I felt lonely out there. People stopped me and said, ‘You lost your wingman.’ I said ‘No, she’ll catch up.’”

After a mile Zoe did, but she soon paid a price:

“When it rained my socks got wet and pretty soon I had some major blisters.”

By the time the pair finished – in just over three hours – it was beginning to really heat up on the course.

Once they got their medals, they made their way to a misting fan to cool off.

The new course, they said, had been more difficult than before and, unfortunately, there was no bacon, Col. Ellis said.

“I won’t be back,” she said laughing. “No, I’m kidding,”

In fact, next year the pair plan to bring along Ethan, though both said he doesn’t like to run.

“We’re going to have to get new shirts,” Zoe said. “They can’t say Mother & Daughter Airmen.”

Col. Ellis nodded: “They’ll be Mother, Daughter & Son.”

Until then do they have any other mother-daughter projects planned?

“One,” Zoe laughed.

“Right now we’re going back for a big nap.”

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