ALLISON KEYES, host: I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Today is, of course, Memorial Day, when we honor the men and women who died while serving in our nation's military. Later, we'll look at what it's like to fight a 21st century war and how it feels to care for the nation's wounded. But first, we want to introduce you to a former Marine whose zest for life can't possibly be contained in her uniform.
Captain Vernice Armour is the first African-American female combat pilot in U.S. history. She's also known as Flygirl. Her high energy shows in everything she does, and let us tell you, she does a lot. She plays football and the trombone. She rides motorcycles and horses, plus she flies helicopters, and we mean the Super Cobra attack helicopter. Now, Armour is a motivational speaker inspiring others to reach their goals, and she's written a book. It's called "Zero to Breakthrough: The 7-Step, Battle-Tested Method for Accomplishing Goals That Matter." She joins us now from our studios in Washington, DC. Welcome, and thanks for your service.
Captain VERNICE ARMOUR: Hey, Allison. It's fantastic to be here with you today.
KEYES: Just watching you walk into the room, you are a lady with a need for speed.
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KEYES: In your book, you wrote about other black women who wanted to become Marine pilots but failed, and you said you weren't going to take their baggage on your trip. What'd you mean by that, and what gave you the confidence to go for it?
ARMOUR: You know, everyone has their own journeys in life, and meaning not take their baggage - and not in a negative way, but saying it's not a limiting factor for me. Because, in fact, they helped...
KEYES: When you say it, you mean being black.
ARMOUR: Right, right, right. They helped blaze part of that trail for me. You know, I stand on a lot of shoulders, you know, Bessie Coleman, Willa Brown, Tuskegee Airmen and some of the women who attempted to come through that door before me, but were at least able to lay down a little concrete, a little foundation, firm footing for me to be able to make it.
KEYES: So, what made you decide you could get through where they didn't?
ARMOUR: I don't what-if anything. You know, you might as well just go for it. And if I - there are only two ways to succeed: the first time, or again. You know, I failed the flight test the first time, passed it on the second time after getting more resources and studying more and going to the right people to help me study. I didn't get into the Marine Corps until the third time, you know, on my third attempt of turning in my application, which ended up being a couple-year process.
So, when people give up after that first time, or maybe that second time - especially when you're talking about years down the line - if you want it, you know, go after it. That's what I truly feel.
KEYES: Initially - speaking of wanting and going after it - you said you wanted to fly fighter jets, but you didn't quite get there, and you called it a modification of your plans, as a Marine.
KEYES: Tell us about that and how you ended up behind the controls of the Cobra.
ARMOUR: You know, I wanted to fly jets. I was drooling over jets. And a buddy of mine, we were going through together, and the XO of our squadron, our training squadron took us down to where the jets were and the flight line and we got a tour and we got to fly in the simulator. And, yeah, I studied. I applied myself. I made jet grades, but I was not the number one guy or number two. I was actually ranked number four of my graduating class out of primary.
KEYES: And you have to be one or two?
ARMOUR: Well, you have to be whatever number there are slots. So, if they had six jets that week, hey, if you're in the top six, you get jets. Well, they had two my week. I was number four, and the top two guys wanted jets. So I found myself going off to helo, learning to fly helicopters. And I felt, in a way, that I'd failed myself, because I knew that there were times where I could have studied a little harder, but I felt I was okay, because I was getting jet grades, right?
Well, when I got to advanced and I said, well, if I have to fly helicopters, I want to fly the baddest thing out there. And to me, that was the attack helicopter. And when friends would go to the beach or go out to the club, I stayed in those books, because I knew if I graduated number one, I could have anything I wanted.
KEYES: I know that you got into your Marine unit just before 9-11. Did that change your focus, after those attacks?
ARMOUR: Oh, man. I'll never forget, I was riding north on the I-5, and the radio was playing, and I heard the announcer break in and say: The Pentagon has just been struck. And when I parked, ran up to the squadron, all the pilots were staring, watching the TV and the news, and we all knew we'd be going somewhere soon.
KEYES: So, when you got to Iraq, was that what made it possible for you to do the job that you had to do, to protect the other Marines on the ground?
ARMOUR: Honestly, I came to that reality check when I was a police officer and had to pull my gun on people multiple times. So, being in a mindset to protect me, to protect my crew, to protect my fellow police officer and fellow Marines, soldiers, airmen, you know, on the ground, that was something that had happened early in life. What did happen was when we crossed that border for the very first time and I was counting down three, two, one, whew, we're in Iraq - such a surreal moment.
You know, I look at all the fires and the oil and the black smoke. It's not cardboard or tires that we're shooting at - real people on the ground, trying to take us out of the sky, shooting back. That was a very surreal moment for me.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. As part of our Memorial Day special program, we're talking to the first African-American female combat pilot in U.S. history, Marine Captain Vernice "Flygirl" Armour. You served two tours in Iraq. I have to ask: What's it like to fly such a complicated machine in the heat of combat?
ARMOUR: You know, it's just like working your iPhone and your iPad these days. When you first got it, you know, it wasn't so intuitive as they say, but when you get in there and you learn the aircraft, it's just like second nature. When you first started driving and the light changed to yellow and you didn't, oh, do I push on the accelerator? Do I stop? And after a certain amount of experience, you know, you floor it, or you push on the brake.
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ARMOUR: And that's just the same thing, you know, whenever you're flying, whether it's a plane or a helicopter, I like to call it a roller coaster without wheels. If you can imagine any motorcycle rider out there that loves to ride, you are in a motorcycle in the air. It's awesome. It is awesome.
KEYES: It kind of sounds like it. I've got to ask you: What do you think about the folk out there that believe that men are better wired for combat than women?
ARMOUR: Well, you know, it is - it's scientifically proven that little boys, babies at birth, are more aggressive than women. So, is it a far stretch to say that carries on into adulthood? No. But when you think about the female lion, the protector of the family, the nurturer - and I will be very careful not to generalize here. I can only talk from my experience.
ARMOUR: But we can be more emotional, but if you think about...
KEYES: And more collaborative, perhaps.
ARMOUR: Absolutely more collaborative. And, you know, come on, the research has proven women are better combat pilots, you know. We finesse the aircraft. The guys like to muscle it.
KEYES: And you can take more G's than they can, too.
ARMOUR: That's true. You know, we're built for endurance, and guys are muscular. I don't want to get into that age-old argument about who's smarter or stronger, but I think both genders bring an amazing amount of talent and skill to the game, and men and women are just as competent when they put their true talents and skills on the line and give a 110 percent-plus of who they have inside.
KEYES: I've got to ask. You've got a lot of firsts on your plate, you know, first African-American woman on Nashville's motorcycle police squad. You're in the Marines, which some might argue has not been a bastion of comfort for people of color. I know you've run into discrimination, because you wrote about it, but you also said that you didn't care. How does that happen?
ARMOUR: You know, you can't care. And I'll say it this way. If I'm walking down the hall and I find out there was a party on Friday night and I wasn't invited or something else happened and I didn't know about it, or let's say I'm walking down the hall and someone doesn't say hi, am I going to pine away and say, oh, why didn't he talk to me? Or, you know, the facts are I was the first woman that many of these men had ever, ever flown with in life. So there's going to be some transition there. There's going to be some adapting and some paradigm shift, right?
But, also, if I'm going to worry about why someone didn't talk to me, why they didn't smile, why they didn't do whatever, I'm not focused on what I need to do. Because the true story, when people ask me about sexism and racism or discrimination, someone could've not liked me because I can bench press more than them, or my hair is shorter or longer, I smile in the morning, I ride a motorcycle or I'm black or I'm a woman.
But honestly I didn't care because the moment I worry about why they have a problem with me, I'm not focusing on the job I have to do. And that's protecting the lives of the men and women on the ground.
KEYES: On this Memorial Day, you, who grew up in military family, you know, dads and everything, do you think the way people in this country feel about soldiers has changed over the last several years? Is there more respect? Is there less respect?
ARMOUR: Well, I think I'd be pretty safe in saying that we already know that there is more outward respect. When we look at how, you know, the men and women were treated coming back from Vietnam and how our service members are treated today coming back, you hear frequently folks saying, well, I support the troops but not the war. There are quite a few folks that make a pronounced effort, you know, to say that point as well.
So, yes, there is a lot of support. I receive support from family, from friends, from strangers. If I'm in uniform walking through the airport, there was an amazing amount of love. I can understand how it can be hard for the American public sometimes as well, looking at the news, we get desensitized to things. We don't know what's going on. Ask somebody what's going on in Iraq right now. They would be able to tell you Osama bin Laden has been captured in somewhere over in the Middle East.
But what are the daily operations? What's our mission now? What's going on? That's not really at the forefront of our mind. You don't see yellow ribbons all over the place anymore.
ARMOUR: So the patriotism, as I'm pretty sure and in a little while, people are going to say, OK, when are we pulling out? Osama's gone. So keeping everyone behind the full push, it can be kind of difficult sometimes if we don't really know what the end goal looks like. What we're trying to do.
KEYES: I wonder, you've embarked upon a new career, you're a motivational speaker now. You've got this book out. What message do you want young girls who might be considering a military career, what message do you want them to take away from your book and from your life in general?
ARMOUR: You know, whether a young girl, a young boy or you're in your 20s or even your 30s, know why you're signing your name on the dotted line. It's not for college reimbursement, it's not for tuition assistance, it's not to travel and see the world. It's to be of service to your country. And your life is on the line. Once you're OK with that, you know, hey, the rest is gravy. Get to college, get the tuition, travel the world. But know why you're doing it. And it's the ultimate sacrifice you could give if you were not to come back to your family and your friends.
KEYES: Vernice "Flygirl" Armour is a motivational speaker and Marine captain. She's the first African-American female combat pilot in U.S. history. Her new book is called "Zero to Breakthrough: The 7-Step Battle Tested Method for Accomplishing Goals that Matter." And she joined us right here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks again for your service.
ARMOUR: You are cleared hot.
KEYES: To read an excerpt of Armour's book "Zero to Breakthrough," go to NPR.org, click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE.