Female Attack Chopper Pilot Tells Her Story
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
As O'Hanlon mentioned, being a pilot is one of the few ways women can join in combat. In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin ordered the armed services to gender integrate combat aviation. That opened the door for Marine Corps Captain Vernice Armour. She's the first female African-America combat pilot in history.
Armour has logged two tours Iraq so far. She's also one of only six women cleared to fly the missile-equipped Super Cobra helicopter. I asked Captain Armour what motivated a self-described daddy's little girl to join the Corps.
Captain VERNICE ARMOUR (U.S. Army): I grew up with three brothers, if that says anything. And I know a lot of people across America have had similar stories, my female counterparts out there. But they played football. My dad was a Marine, Vietnam, a couple of tours, crew chief. My grandfather was a Marine and he fought in World War II, at Guadalcanal and Panama. So I had a legacy and a family to live up to, you know. That didn't take away from being daddy's little girl, not even a little bit, but I could hang with the though ones too.
CHIDEYA: So you're back stateside now, but tell us about your time in Najaf.
Capt. ARMOUR: Najaf was a very intense time period. It was when the buildup was going. You know, you had your insurgents in the cemetery. And when the battle in Najaf started in the beginning of August, it started actually with one of our aircraft being shot down. August 10th was a very intense moment for me.
I'll never forget one of our missions. We had put a couple of missiles into a building that was outside of the cemetery. And after prosecuting that target, we were switched to an air controller that was in the cemetery, and they said they were pinned down by a mortar position.
So we flew up, got in position. They didn't have any smoke or visual instruments to talk us on to the target or mark it for us, so they had to actually give us a verbal talk-on, like do you see this street? Okay, go 200 meters to the right. Okay, do you see that building there? Okay, go south by, you know, however many meters. And when we had a visual on the building or what I perceived was the building, I actually saw muzzle flash from small arms coming out of it. So we were able to identify it as enemy inside the building.
And as we came around, we climbed up vertically to get a little bit of a lookdown on the target. And as we're closing in, I sight in, get everything lined up to launch the missile. Pulled the trigger. Nothing happens. Pulled the trigger again, hoping it would come off, and 1.5 seconds later - it's what the tactical manual says - the missile comes off. It impacts the target, and I shoot 20-millimeter rounds into it as we pulled off.
Fast forward to about four or five months later, when I was back at Camp Pendleton, I'm in the hospital waiting for an appointment and there's a young Marine in front of me. And maybe in my typical self, I started talking to him. Hey, how you're doing? What's going on? Why are you here? And he said he's there for physical therapy. And he had some shrapnel in his leg. And I was, like, oh, wow. When was your last tour?
And he said he was a part of the 11th MEU in Iraq. And I was like, hey, I was on the 11th MEU. I was the cover pilot out there with you guys. I was your air support. He's like, oh, wow, you fly Cobras? Man, that's awesome. I was on a mission on Najaf. And we were pinned down by mortar fire. We called in the section Cobras, they came in, put a missile onto the building and it destroyed the target.
And we reconciled the days, it was the same exact mission. And I was the pilot that shot that missile into that building. And he paused and he looked at me, solemnly, and he said, man, you saved my life.
Capt. ARMOUR: Yeah. You know, that is the only Marine that I've had an encounter like that with. It's very heartfelt. I will never forget it. I'll never forget his face. And it made an impression.
CHIDEYA: I'm sure it did. And I have some family who have been in the Marines. And you guys, or in your case, you gals, I guess - you guys are known for being guys.
Capt. ARMOUR: Right.
CHIDEYA: And so what's it like to a woman? Have you just, at some point, said, you know what, I don't care about being Miss Tough As Nails, but this is, it's bugging me to be a woman in the Marines, because I'm not getting treated right?
Capt. ARMOUR: Overall, you know, honestly, I don't know if I've always been a rebel with a cause, without a cause, but I've always been me ever since being that little girl. And when I perceive there's an obstacle in front of me, I acknowledge it, but I don't give it power. For me it's, hey, what do I have to do to get under, around, over, through, to get to the other side.
I don't know if some of the obstacles I encountered were because I'm female, because I'm black, because I'm loud, I'm colorful, I have short hair. Who knows? And honestly, I didn't care.
CHIDEYA: Women are not allowed to serve in the infantry, but we just covered on NEWS & NOTES the fact that there have been many female casualties, both injuries and deaths, not as many proportionately as men, but certainly a significant number. What do you say to people who say women have no place on the battlefield?
Capt. ARMOUR: You know, I'm ready to die for my country just like my male counterparts. I have the right to protect my country just like my male counterparts. I don't want special treatment. I do want to be recognized for who I am. I am Vernice Armour. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am an African-American. I don't feel that I have to leave anything that I am at the door to be a part of that team.
We all come to the fight with our own differences, similarities and complexities. What we're talking about is diversity. We're a diverse nation. We're a diverse armed services, and we're continuing to grow increasingly diverse.
There is talent everywhere, whether it's male or female, black, white, Native American, Hispanic, Asian. We all have something to give, and if I were asked to do it all over again, I would. There's nothing - I could have been born anywhere, but I wasn't. I was born in the United States of America and for that I am truly blessed.
CHIDEYA: You talk about wanting to be judged as someone who is serving, willing to serve and serving. But do you think that there are differences between men and women in uniform?
Capt. ARMOUR: Absolutely. I'm a woman. I'll always be a woman. I will not be a man. You know, we - logistically, there are differences, but when it comes to flying an attack helicopter, you know, it doesn't take a certain amount of brawn and might to fly that helicopter.
It takes intellect, finesse and a smart - a certain amount of book knowledge to know how to work everything, a strategic thinking intellect to know how and where to position the aircraft and how to get those rounds on target. But there is always going to be a difference.
CHIDEYA: What about emotionally? Are the men and women who are Marines different in any way?
Capt. ARMOUR: When we're talking about emotionally, some guys cry more than I do by huge amounts. You know? I think it boils down to the individual. But when DOD is making decisions, they aren't looking at Vernice Armour. They aren't looking at John Smith. They're looking at the organization as a whole and those armed services as a whole.
And when the government is ready to, you know, tackle that beast of women in the infantry, you know, I - I don't know. It's going to be interesting.
CHIDEYA: Captain Vernice Armour is the first female African-American combat pilot in history. She's also a two-time winner of the Marine Corps Strongest Warrior competition. And on July 1st, she'll leave the Corps for a career in public speaking.
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