UPDATE 1/23/2013: Department of Defense lifts combat ban on women in the military.
Major Mary Jennings Hegar served three tours over two deployments to Afghanistan, and trained as a California Air National Guard Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) pilot after serving 5 years in the Air Force. She was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device for heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Kandahar Airfield on July 29, 2009. She is currently a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the military’s policy excluding women from many combat positions.
When I was little, people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d always answer, “I want to be an Air Force pilot.” I never understood why they would look so surprised. To this day, that same part of me doesn’t understand why someone’s gender would have any bearing at all on what job they ended up in. I always thought that your skills, strengths, and interests would be better qualifiers. I remember watching the news when I was in high school and hearing that they were opening combat aircraft up to women for the first time. My first thought was, “Cool! What do I need to do to get one!” followed closely by my second thought, “What changed? Why weren’t we allowed to fly in combat before?”
Since those days, I’ve truly been living my dream. I’ve been through years of vigorous, challenging, sometimes brutal training. I excelled in the academic, flying, and physical fitness arenas. I never doubted I could do this job. SERE training (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) was the most intense physical and mental test I’ve been through to date, and successfully completing that course convinced me that I could do anything. But, despite these accomplishments, I have faced a great deal of discrimination during my career. The most unfortunate example was as a brand new co-pilot on my first tour in Afghanistan.
I was very eager and excited to finally be “hacking the mission” in Afghanistan in 2007. My first crew was amazing, and together we flew hundreds of missions saving the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. You would never have guessed that before our first flight my Aerial Gunner had to be ordered to fly with me over his objections to flying into combat with a woman. When I confronted him about it, he said that he didn’t think I could carry my weight in an evasion situation if we were to find ourselves shot down over enemy lines. He used the combat exclusion policy as substantiation for his prejudice, stating that if women were his equal then the Air Force would let them be Pararescuemen and Combat Controllers (two jobs closed to women then and now). He didn’t take into consideration the fact that I had become somewhat of an expert on the local area, learning some of the language and landmarks, or that I was the only expert marksman (in both of my weapons) on the crew. Instead of seeing my strengths and how I could contribute to an evading crew, he only saw my gender. However, I was able to prove him wrong in 2009.
On my third tour to Afghanistan, my crew and I were flying a Medevac mission to exfiltrate three Category A (“Urgent Surgical”) American soldiers from a convoy which had been ambushed and was pinned down somewhere north of Kandahar. When we landed the first time to offload our Pararescuemen (our Special Forces troops who have medical training and are responsible for going out and getting the patients to the helicopter), the aircraft took a 5.56mm round through the co-pilot windshield which fragmented and impacted my right forearm and thigh in 15 places. On takeoff, the crew discussed returning to base. All it took was my telling them that I was alright and that I thought we should go back in (it’s every Rescue pilot’s nightmare to leave a Pararescueman or survivor on the ground while you go home). There was no overzealous chivalry, no concessions given for gender…just a crew of Americans who refused to fly out of there without everyone on board.
On our second landing, unfortunately, the enemy had repositioned a belt-fed heavy machine gun and proceeded to fill our aircraft with 40 or 50 7.62mm rounds. Crippled, we lifted off and tried to get our patients to safety. However, some of the rounds we took had impacted our fuel system enough that we only made it 1.8 miles. Despite my injuries, I continued to serve my crew as their co-pilot, helping the aircraft commander get the limping aircraft on the ground. We instantly shut down and established a perimeter, receiving fire from the surrounding enemy forces for 20 minutes before being rescued on the skids of the supporting Army OH-58 helicopters. While we lifted off, I was able to ascertain the point of origin of enemy fire being directed at the Pararescuemen who were transferring our patients to our sister ship. I returned fire and suppressed the enemy enough to enable them to safely traverse the terrain between the two aircraft. At no point during this encounter was my gender ever even considered to be a factor in any decision or action taken by any member of my crew. We were warriors on a battlefield with one goal in mind: get everyone - EVERYONE - home safe.
If there is one thing I’ve learned about the differences between us all throughout my years of service, it’s this: putting the right person in the right job has very little to do with one’s gender, race, religion, or other demographic descriptor. It has everything to do with one’s heart, character, ability, determination and dedication.
That’s the problem with the military’s combat exclusion policy. It makes it that much harder for people to see someone’s abilities, and instead reinforces stereotypes about gender. The policy creates the pervasive way of thinking in military and civilian populations that women can’t serve in combat roles, even in the face of the reality that servicewomen in all branches of the military are already fighting for their country alongside their male counterparts. They shoot, they return fire, they drag wounded comrades to safety, they engage the enemy, and they have been doing these heroic deeds since the Revolutionary War. They risk their lives for their country, and the combat exclusion policy does them a great disservice.
I’m proud to be a part of this moment in history, and believe my country will recognize the need to update an antiquated policy that only serves to limit the pool of applicants who want to rise to answer our nation’s call by serving in our military’s most demanding jobs.