LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The U.S. wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought without any clear front lines - meaning most any place can become a combat zone. That means that women, who officially do not have combat roles, have been battle tested. One such woman is the subject of our profile today, Chief Warrant Officer Stephanie Rose. Rose was among the first women to fly the Apache attack helicopter. She's currently serving her third combat tour; this one in Northern Afghanistan. NPR's Quil Lawrence caught up with her and sent us this report.
QUIL LAWRENCE: The U.S. Army's 4th Combat Aviation Brigade deployed to Afghanistan last spring, bringing much-appreciated air power to NATO forces in the north of the country, where Taliban activities are on the rise.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
Ms. STEPHANIE ROSE (Chief Warrant Officer): We're about to get (unintelligible) pretty bad.
LAWRENCE: As a pair of landing choppers blasted dust across the airstrip, Chief Warrant Officer Stephanie Rose and Captain Nicole Jordan showed a group of visitors around the cockpit of an Apache Longbow helicopter, which even after hundreds of flight hours, still clearly holds a thrill for anyone who gets to pilot one.
Ms. ROSE: There's nothing else I could think I would rather be doing. It's better than driving a race car.
LAWRENCE: Rose and her sometimes co-pilot Jordan initially resist the suggestion that it's at all remarkable for women to be flying combat helicopters. The Apache flies the same, no matter who is at the controls, Jordan says.
Captain NICOLE JORDAN: We all do the job, and we all - some of us do it better than others.
LAWRENCE: Women have been flying Apaches for 15 years, she says. But as it happens, that's about as long as Rose has been in the Army.
Ms. ROSE: I joined in June of 1995, just a couple of months before women started flying Apaches.
LAWRENCE: It started, as so many soldiers like to say, with misinformation from a recruiting officer. Rose grew up in Dallas, Texas and needed money for college. She knew nothing about the Army when she walked into the recruiter's office.
Ms. ROSE: And he asked me, he said, what would you like to do, and I looked at the wall and I saw a Black Hawk with the soldiers rappelling down the rope. And I said, well, I'd like to do that. What do I have to do to get to do that? And he - this is funny - he looked at me, he goes, oh, no, no, women aren't allowed to do that.
LAWRENCE: The recruiter was trying to fill a different quota. But as soon as Rose discovered that women were, in fact, flying choppers, she rushed to apply for flight school. When she got accepted in 1998, only 18 women were flying Apaches. Rose was the only woman in her class.
Ms. ROSE: Actually, I had several pilots in my company that refused to fly with me, just based on the fact that I was a woman. Those guys are not around anymore today. But... And my company commander was OK with that at the time. He said, hey, you know what, I can't force you to fly with a woman, and I can kind of understand why you would think or feel that way, so I'm not going to make you. And truthfully, from my own perspective, if the guy doesn't want to fly with me because I'm a woman, I don't want to fly with him either. So... But I think that's - I know that's gone today.
LAWRENCE: It's been years since she's heard as much as a wisecrack about woman pilots. And for a pilot like Captain Nicole Jordan, in the Army for just five years, it's made the path much easier.
Capt. JORDAN: I love my job. My husband loves the job. My husband does the same thing that we do.
LAWRENCE: He's a pilot also?
Capt. JORDAN: He is a pilot also. And this, I just feel that this is right for me and he feels like it's right for him, so it's something that I want to definitely see through.
LAWRENCE: Being married to another pilot also helps, says Jordan, who knows some people who get out of the Army because they want to start families.
For Rose, family is also a concern she's had to reconcile.
Ms. ROSE: I've been a single mom for 13 and a half years - he'll be 14 in January - through flight school, through deployments, through everything.
Ms. ROSE: As a mother, Rose can't help but mention that he's a straight A student, a gifted athlete and in possession of a heart of gold. Her friends and sometimes her father have taken care of her son through some hard times, especially her first trip to Iraq in 2006.
Ms. ROSE: You know, I think at first it was tough for him. We didn't really know what to expect - my first deployment. And '06 was - in Iraq, was tough. You know, we've talked about it and I felt like it was my obligation. And I explained to him that when you make a commitment to something, that you have to see it through. So, hard lesson at an early age, I guess.
LAWRENCE: 2006 in Iraq was really tough - many helicopters down, many medevac missions to accompany.
Rose returned to Iraq in 2008, which was better but still no joyride. That deployment included her closest call to date, while flying security during an operation north of Baghdad. Ground forces radioed her and another chopper to concentrate on three men running out of the back of a building; one had a suicide vest.
Ms. ROSE: And I was low bird, watching with my naked eye, these individuals that were in the bush. He decided to detonate his vest, and tried to time it so it detonated on my aircraft. The blast and the concussion from the explosion picked up the back of my aircraft and kind of pushed us forward in a way, which is probably, I think, the first time I really felt like I didn't have control of the aircraft. And then you can hear the shrapnel t, t, t, t, t, t - at the back end of the airplane. I mean, the explosion, you could feel the heat in the cockpit; you could feel the concussion from the explosion, 'cause it was quite a bit of C-4. So it's probably the first time I thought that I had exceeded my own personal limitations in the aircraft.
LAWRENCE: That's one way to put it.
Rose brought her Apache home safely, if a bit worse for wear.
Now back for a third tour that will last through next summer, the strategy in Afghanistan has become as much about when not to shoot as when to open fire, with civilian casualties a pivotal issue. The power to see in the dark and hit targets thousands of yards away can be intoxicating, but another high-tech gadget onboard the Apache records the pilots' every decision, says Captain Jordan.
Capt. JORDAN: You own every one of those bullets that come out. And it's not like a decision, oh, I'm going to make by myself. It's a team decision, and there's a lot of consideration and a lot of research on the scene.
LAWRENCE: There are friendly NATO and Afghan troops on the ground, there are often innocent civilians, and there are political considerations that come down to one question, says Rose.
Ms. ROSE: I'm cleared to fire, the ground commander has cleared me to shoot; should I go ahead and pull the trigger? Is me taking this person's life going to make a difference?
LAWRENCE: Rose says she saw major changes between her first deployment to Iraq, when a sectarian civil war burned through the country; and her second trip there, when violence cooled and life began creeping back to normal.
Though the two countries are different, she hopes for a similar improvement in Afghanistan - even if she has to see it from high in the air.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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