A Purple Heart Warrior Takes Aim At Military Inequality In 'Shoot Like A Girl' Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar is part of a lawsuit that argues excluding women from combat is unconstitutional. She says the lawsuit isn't about women's rights – it's about military effectiveness.
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A Purple Heart Warrior Takes Aim At Military Inequality In 'Shoot Like A Girl'

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A Purple Heart Warrior Takes Aim At Military Inequality In 'Shoot Like A Girl'

A Purple Heart Warrior Takes Aim At Military Inequality In 'Shoot Like A Girl'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Women were technically barred from ground combat when Major Mary Jennings Hegar was the copilot of a medevac helicopter in Afghanistan that was shot down by the Taliban. She was wounded in her rifle arm. But she managed to return fire, which saved the lives of her crew and patients. This was in 2009, during her third and final tour in Afghanistan, flying combat search and rescue missions with the Air National Guard.

After receiving a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, she became a plaintiff in the ACLU's 2012 lawsuit against the Defense Department, challenging the ban on women in combat positions. Before the suit got to court, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided it was time to end the ban. Some military women are concerned that the Trump administration will try to reinstate the ban. Trump has criticized the Obama-era military for being too politically correct. Hegar has written a new memoir called "Shoot Like A Girl."

Mary Jennings Hegar, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MARY JENNINGS HEGAR: Thank you so much, Terry. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: One of your arguments in support of women serving in combat missions is that they're already in combat in many situations. It's just not called that. And they're not given credit for it. So let's talk about how you came under fire and fired back. What was the mission you were on?

HEGAR: I was a combat search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. And we were on loan to the Army for the medevac mission. So I was medevacing (ph) three American soldiers, one of whom was a female, from an active battlefield. And we took some fire. And it disabled our aircraft. And we ended up on the ground in the middle of, you know, enemy territory, returning fire with Taliban ground forces.

GROSS: OK, so you were in the helicopter when you took fire, and the windshield shattered. You were wounded by shrapnel. It sounds like you didn't even know you were wounded. But you saw this, like, blood covering your arm.

HEGAR: Yeah, you know, when we took over the medevac mission, we started getting more rescue casualties. But at the time of this shoot-down, we hadn't had any. So when the bullet came through the windshield, we knew that it was a possibility, of course. We took it very seriously. We knew we were in combat, and we got shot at a lot. But, you know, we didn't take a lot of damage until that point. So when the bullet came through the windshield, I had heard a rock hitting the windshield before, and that's what it sounded like.

So that's what I thought it was because I saw the windshield shatter. And I thought, uh-oh, my maintenance guys are going to just kill me because they just replaced this windshield (laughter). And here we are breaking another windshield. And it wasn't until I felt the warmth on my arm that I - and I looked down and saw the blood that I realized I had been hit. And actually, I probably didn't even realize it at that point. It took a little bit for it to sink in.

GROSS: So you had to decide, and the pilot had to decide, were you fit to continue the mission.

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: And you insisted on continuing it.

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: How did how did you assess yourself and feel confident that you still had the nerve and the strength and the mental focus to do it in spite of the fact that you were injured?

HEGAR: You know, strangely enough, the nerve never became a problem. It wasn't until after everybody was safe that things started sinking in, and all of us kind of realized what we had just been through and how close we had come to not coming home. But as far as, like, the physical ability to fly, I just started, you know, making a fist with my arm and moving my leg. And I asked the aircraft commander if I could have the controls. And I took control of the aircraft, and I could fly it around.

And I was demonstrating to my crew that I was functional because despite, you know, the adrenaline and wanting to finish the mission and wanting to go in and pick up the patients, I wouldn't have put my crew at risk by going in with a disabled pilot. So it was my way of demonstrating to them and myself that I could continue and that should something happen to the other pilot, I could get us all home. So...

GROSS: So several things went wrong here. First, you were shot at. Then you had to do a hard landing. You didn't call it a crash landing, but a hard landing.

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: You were losing fuel...

HEGAR: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: ...Because - was there shrapnel in the gas tank?

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: In the fuel tank?

HEGAR: So the first - it's - our standard operating procedure is to land, quickly deplane our - they're called PJs, but they're kind of like Delta Force with medical training - deplane our PJs to go get the patients. And then we take off while they assess the patients because if we stay in the landing zone, first of all, we're a target. But secondly, we're loud. We kick up a lot of dirt - that type of thing.

So it's our standard operating procedure to take off and come back in when they're ready anyway. So when we took off, they hadn't even known that I had been shot. So the question was, can we go back in on the second go and pick up the PJs and the patients? When we determined that the aircraft was functional at that time and that the copilot, me, was functional, we decided we could go back in. It wasn't until the second time we went in that the enemy had repositioned a heavy, belt-fed machine gun, which did a lot more damage to the aircraft than that single rifle round that we took initially.

So yes, the second time that we went in, we took so much fire up and down from the tail to the nose that it took out multiple systems and disabled us. We did try to take off. We thought we could make it. But it wasn't until we saw our fuel situation and all of the damage that the fuel lines had taken that we realized we weren't going to have enough fuel to make it home.

GROSS: So you ended up opening fire on the Taliban after they...

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: ...Opened fire on you. Could you describe what the situation was when you started shooting...

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: ...And where you were?

HEGAR: OK. The enemy forces were very well dug in. This was a very well thought out, planned, what we call a SAR trap. They hurt someone and laid in wait in ambush because they knew that we would come in and medevac them off the field. So it is something that we have to live with as rescue forces, that we know that this happens. So they actually had, you know, 100 to 150 enemy fighters in the area in wait trying to ambush a helicopter and were very well-prepared. One of the things that they were prepared with was they were dug in into the terrain so well that we couldn't see, and the air cover couldn't see, muzzle flashes. So they were shooting down tunnels and those types of things, and it made it very difficult to return fire because, as you may know, American forces don't just spray bullets.

I was actually running out to the Kiowa helicopter, the one that I stood on the skids and was lifted out. It's like this little recon helicopter. Unfortunately, it's a two-seater helicopter, so there were no more seats. So I climbed onto the skid of the helicopter, but it was still sitting on the ground, which is kind of a point now looking back because we're talking about ground combat and not air combat. As I was on the skid and the pilots were preparing to lift, I saw the muzzle flash going toward the aircraft that was still on the ground, which had some of my PJs who were still getting the patients ready to get out of town and my flight engineer Steve, who's a good friend of mine. He's like a big brother to me.

And as I saw the muzzle flash being directed toward them and the fire and I could see the result of that fire - I could see the ground where the ground was getting kicked up in the dirt - I began returning fire with my rifle toward the area that I saw the muzzle flash. And then as we lifted, I continued firing until I felt like it was unsafe because I didn't know if the second aircraft was going to be coming around. As a pilot, I have, like, an air sense about firing from the air, and if you're not on radio with your sistership, you shouldn't be firing because they could be coming around your side or something like that. So at the point that I felt like it was becoming unsafe, I stopped firing.

GROSS: So I just want to get a picture here. So you're on the skids and for people not familiar with helicopters, those are kind of, like, ski-like feet.

HEGAR: Yeah, like ice skates.

GROSS: Beneath the...

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: Exactly, beneath helicopter. So here you're hanging by your arms on the skids as it takes off or you're strapped in or what?

HEGAR: No. That's a great clarifying question. Thank you. No, the Kiowa has two skids, which, like you said, are like skis. And then it has a, like, a mount that goes from the skid to the aircraft that keeps the skid on the aircraft, like a leg that goes from the aircraft to this to the ski. I was straddling that mount and squeezing it with my knees and bracing my rifle on the rocket pod, and my feet were on the skid and my back was pressed against the fuselage of the helicopter.

GROSS: It's pretty windy up there.

(LAUGHTER)

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: So I just can't - like, you're on the skid of the helicopter. The helicopter's taking off. It's really windy because of the speed of the helicopter.

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: And for a while, you're still returning fire.

HEGAR: Right. So it was actually windy just when it was sitting on the ground because of the rotor blades as well. So it's very loud.

GROSS: Of course, I hadn't thought of that. You're right.

HEGAR: You know, I've got my helmet on. I'm positioning myself and thinking, you know, how am I going to hold on and still be able to fire my rifle and make sure I don't fall off, but make sure I can provide cover? So I kind of, you know, had my arm wrapped around the sling of my rifle and was ready - trying to be ready for anything.

And that's when I saw the muzzle flashes. And the helicopter was what we call getting light. Like, the pilot was providing input to the collective, which gives power to the rotor blades, which causes an increase in the wind. And you can feel the aircraft getting light, like, tiptoeing, you know, preparing to take off. And that's when I saw the muzzle flash. I started firing. I continued firing as he lifted. And yes, it was very noisy and windy. And that's why I had to stop firing.

Also, I had given my extra ammo to the PJs because I felt like we were getting out of the LZ, they still had to get the patients out. And who knows what might have happened? They might have needed that extra ammo. So I gave him my extra ammo. I only had one clip left. But I had already seen what could go wrong. So I was trying to conserve ammo, as well. So I probably shot about a dozen rounds from the ground, and then as we lifted.

GROSS: So did everybody get out alive?

HEGAR: Yes. And to this day, it's one of the things that amazes me, that with all the things that went wrong, everybody got out alive - the patients, the crew, the aircraft that were supporting us. Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

GROSS: So it's an amazing story you've just told us. And you were officially not in combat because you're a woman.

HEGAR: I was officially not in ground combat. And so this was actually something that, you know, when I was asked to be a part of the case to fight for, you know, women to have the right to apply for jobs that were considered, you know, at risk for being in direct ground combat, I was actually, to be honest with you, I was a little surprised. I was like, you mean women are still being barred from combat? (Laughter) Like, I was surprised because I had medevaced so many women off the battlefield. And I, myself, had been in combat. And I had been in so much air combat that I just had no idea.

And it wasn't until I educated myself a little bit more on what some of the other branches were doing. And I knew that I had applied - or that I wanted to apply for a job in the Air Force that I couldn't because it was a direct combat - ground combat role. You know, but it just - I guess it just didn't really sink in to me because the Air Force - it impacts the Air Force, like, 1 percent. Whereas the other branches the Marines and the Army, it really, really impacts them.

So it wasn't until I started really looking into it that I realized that while I was given credit for being in combat because air combat is allowed - I have the Air Force Combat Action Medal, I have, you know, a couple of medals that denote that I was in combat, and it says that on my records - that I wouldn't have gotten credit for being in combat on the ground if I were a ground troop.

So the reason that that's important is obviously for things like promotion. But if you think about, like, becoming a joint chief of staff or something like that, you can't - or you shouldn't - but you can't have that job unless you have led troops in combat, unless you've been in combat, held combat roles and those types of things. And even though the women that I'm serving with today have been, they don't get credit for that in their records. So they could never rise to the level of a joint chief of staff.

GROSS: Well, you were excluded from a position you wanted after you left...

HEGAR: Right

GROSS: ...To retire from flying. You wanted to become a special tactics officer, which was considered a combat position. But what was the job you were hoping to get?

HEGAR: Basically, that job is you are supporting ground forces. You're on the ground with the ground forces. And you are the person on the radio calling in the airstrikes. You're basically liaising with airpower. So it takes a couple of things to be successful at that job. You have to be able to think in 3-D space, which is a lot harder than some people realize. So when you're giving direction to pilots, it's not just kind of front, back, left, right. You have to think up, down as well. And you have to be able to speak pilot.

It's like a different language. You know, we have our own lingo. We have code words that are intended to confuse the enemy if they can pick up our radio transmissions. So it's, you know, purposefully obtuse. So you have to be able to speak pilot. You have to be able to maintain your composure and, you know, when bullets are flying over your head, not escalate your voice.

That's actually one of the critical elements is that you not spin everybody up. Because when one person gets on the radio with a panic in their voice, it really kind of turns the tide of a battle sometimes, where you start to infect everybody else with your panic. And it makes everyone feel like things aren't going well. So you have to maintain a composure. So the fact that I had already proven all of those things meant to me that I would be very successful in that job, that I could never apply for it because I was a woman.

GROSS: And that was considered a combat position?

HEGAR: Yes. It was considered - I don't have the wording in front of me, but it's something about women can't be assigned to a unit that - whose primary mission is to bring combat to the enemy or engage the enemy in ground combat, something like that. So there are women serving in these types of roles. But they're not assigned to those units because the wording of the policy was that you can't be assigned to the unit.

So they would be what we would call attached to the unit. They wouldn't get to train with the unit. They wouldn't go home and stay at the same base with the unit. They wouldn't get to know them. They wouldn't get a chance to bond with them. Unit cohesion wouldn't get a chance to form. But because we needed those women in those roles, either because we need bodies in those roles, or because the women in question happened to have the skill set that the commanders were looking for, or just the fact that they were women.

For example, the Marine female engagement teams is a great example of that, where they go out, and they're the ones that talk to the female locals and have to pat them down if they're going through a checkpoint. That's not something that the culture would allow our male soldiers to do. So there is a need for women in those roles. But because of the policy, they couldn't be assigned to those units, which caused all sorts of problems.

GROSS: All right. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Major Mary Jennings Hegar. She's the author of the new memoir "Shoot Like A Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight In Afghanistan And On The Home Front." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO BENEVENTO'S "GREENPOINT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Major Mary Jennings Hegar. She was a helicopter pilot with the California National Guard who served three tours in Afghanistan. She ended up returning fire when the Taliban fired on her crew and copter. She was injured, and then she ended up being the plaintiff in an ACLU suit against the Defense Department saying that women should be allowed in combat roles. They should not be barred from those roles. Her new memoir is called "Shoot Like A Girl."

So you were actually called by the ACLU who asked you to be a plaintiff in a suit against the Defense Department challenging the policy of excluding women from combat positions. So what was your role in that suit? Like, what did you have to do? It never really went to court because Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense decided to just change the rule in conjunction...

HEGAR: Right, you know, in my...

GROSS: ...With the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also wanted to change the rule.

HEGAR: Exactly. Some people who haven't really looked into, you know, what happened with the suit. They like to assume that I have taken some kind of anti-military or anti-establishment stance, and it couldn't be further from the truth. For me, it wasn't about women's rights. It was about military effectiveness. The reasons that I just told you that we're tying the hands of the commanders in the field and having - making them have to juggle, you know, the name of the status of the woman that they had to put out with the team that they were sending into combat.

That's what we were trying to get rid of, not to mention we were trying to double the pool of candidates that could apply for any position. So any time you increase the number of candidates that can apply, you're obviously going to get a better product out of that. So it was never about fighting the military.

It was about this is the right thing to do for the military. So it didn't surprise me when the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually issued a unanimous recommendation to the secretary of defense that he repeal the policy. Very satisfying for me as a plaintiff that he repealed the policy on the heels of that recommendation and my lawsuit. And there was actually another lawsuit going on as well. It felt like a joint effort, like all of us onboard trying to do the right thing for the military that we loved.

GROSS: So what's the status now?

HEGAR: The lawsuit remains open because the lawsuit wasn't just about repealing the policy. That was the big first step. The lawsuit remains open as a way for us to monitor integration, especially through a changing administration and make sure that we don't take any steps backwards.

GROSS: So what is the status of women in combat right now? What are they...

HEGAR: Well, right now...

GROSS: ...Eligible for? What positions?

HEGAR: Leon Panetta said, you know, we're repealing the policy, but I'm giving the services three years to research and find out what jobs they want to - if any - to ask to keep closed. You know, he was open to the fact that, you know, maybe he was wrong. So he said on repealing the blanket policy and closing those jobs by default to making the default that the jobs are open and if you want to have them closed, you have to file a waiver.

So that was the huge difference. It didn't necessarily guarantee that there wouldn't be jobs closed to women. So he gave the services three years to do some research, make some decisions, file for any kind of waiver to try to keep those jobs closed. And then I believe it was Secretary Carter, recently, who came out and said I have seen the data that you guys are, you know, expecting to present to me. Let me just save you some time and tell you right now that no waivers will be granted. This is going to be a no-exceptions kind of thing and no jobs - I have not seen any research that I consider valid that would convince me that any job needs to stay closed. So that was huge.

Now, that doesn't mean that, you know, Secretary Mattis - I know that he has expressed some opinions. I don't want to say that they were against women in combat, but he's expressed some opinions that make him wary of the idea of women in combat. So I believe that he is a thoughtful leader, and he's a really smart guy. He does a lot of reading, and he's - his leadership style is a lot like mine. He's very blunt, and he gets in trouble for some of the things he says sometimes. And I really love that about him.

GROSS: My guest is Major Mary Jennings Hegar. Her new memoir is called "Shoot Like A Girl." After a break, we'll have a lot to talk about including how she and her crew inadvertently got high while flying a mission, how she was sexually assaulted in the military and why she loves refueling in air even though it's a really dangerous maneuver. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMIN VAN BUUREN'S "INTENSE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mary Major Jennings Hegar. She did three tours in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot with the Air National Guard. On one medivac mission in 2009, her copter was shot down by Taliban, and she was shot in the arm. When another copter came to rescue her, her crew and patients, she returned fire shooting at the Taliban providing cover while the copter took off. She received a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device. In 2012, she became a plaintiff in the ACLU suit against the Defense Department's ban on women in combat. Hegar's new memoir is called "Shoot Like A Girl."

So let me just explain to our listeners that at this point in the conversation, we had to take a short break because Mary's husband had just arrived with their 3-week-old baby, and she had to go take a short break to breastfeed the baby and then brought the baby into the studio. So I've just returned to the conversation with Major Mary Jennings Hegar and her 3-week-old baby...

HEGAR: And baby in tow.

GROSS: ...Together in the studio - yes (laughter).

HEGAR: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: What's your baby's name?

HEGAR: His name is Daniel.

GROSS: OK. Welcome to FRESH AIR, Daniel (ph) (laughter).

HEGAR: He is a big fan of the show.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm sure.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So let me ask you - you consider yourself a warrior, to have a warrior's heart and a warrior spirit and you've...

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: You've proved that. You're also now a mother.

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: For a lot of people, the whole idea of being a mother and a warrior is so incompatible, and you know you're not being both at the same time. You're retired from the warrior position. But talk about being both, having a warrior's heart and now being a mother and why you think that they are compatible, that you're capable of being both.

HEGAR: Yeah. I think they're completely compatible. I think of myself as a bit of a mother bear. And if anybody, you know, poses a threat to my kids, they'll see both my mother's heart and (laughter) my warrior spirit. I think that they're compatible. You know, throughout history, there's examples of women who have been mothers and gone on to lead in combat. Queen Boudica is one that I can think of whose husband was killed by - I believe it was the Romans. And then, you know, her daughters were brutalized, and she led armies against them. So I don't think the two are incompatible. I think that if anything...

DANIEL: (Crying).

HEGAR: Oh, I'm so sorry. Hang on a second.

GROSS: OK.

HEGAR: Terry, I'm going to see if he's had enough and my husband can take him out real quick.

GROSS: OK. So I think the lesson we're learning is that being a mother is compatible with being a warrior but not so much with being an interviewee.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Learning this lesson.

HEGAR: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: OK.

HEGAR: So I believe that being a mother and a warrior are absolutely compatible. In fact, I think that the things about me that make me a good warrior are the things that make me a good mother. My, you know, steadfast commitment to integrity and excellence and putting others before myself and being protective. I tap on those same things as a mother. So I just feel, you know, that the two are definitely very, very compatible.

GROSS: What are the arguments that have been used against you and other women being in combat?

HEGAR: Oh, we could talk for three hours about that (laughter). They range from concerns that are very legitimate and need to be, you know, carefully considered to concerns that are absolutely ridiculous. I think that the number one thing that pops up in people's mind is the physical strength issue and whether or not women are physically strong enough to be in combat, which I answer with a couple things. First of all, we've already disproven that that's an issue because there are women serving successfully in combat. Most combat is not, you know, a hand-to-hand knife battle that, you know, the person who could do the most push-ups is going to end up winning. That's just not the face of modern warfare right now.

Being a good combat soldier has more to do with - yes, you have to be strong. Don't get me wrong. There's definitely a physical strength element to it, but it's not always the person who has the most brute strength wins. It's a, you know, who is the best with their weapons, who is the best tactical thinker, who's the best team player, who is the best leader, those types of things - who holds their composure when the bullets fly because I've seen 200-pound, you know, men curl up in the fetal position and call for their moms before, you know, just by the nature of my business. I'm in medevac so I see people having their hardest day.

I've seen firsthand that the warrior spirit is not directly proportional to how many pull-ups you can do. So the physical standards question is important, but the way that you answer that is, in my opinion - and some people in my camp disagree with me - but in my opinion, you keep the standards very high and you maintain one standard. There shouldn't be two standards for women and men. There should be a standard for this job, for - to do this job, you should have to do these things. And those requirements should be job specific and not arbitrarily high in order to specifically keep women out. But if you need to be able to drag a 200-pound, you know, Marine out of a burning vehicle, then they should make a 200-pound dummy and put it in a box that simulates a vehicle and have people have to drag them out in order to graduate from that course.

I think that that's the answer not only to the concern about physical standards but also to unit cohesion. One of the reasons that I was - you know, I don't even like to say that I was welcomed by my unit because it was just no question. I was just one of them. It wasn't - there wasn't a moment where I was, you know, brought into the band of brothers. I was just part of the unit, part of the family. And one of the main reasons was because I had - they knew I had been through all the same training, I had met all the same standards and that I was highly competent at my job.

People in life-and-death jobs tend to - even if they start with some kind of stereotypical discriminatory view, they - after the bullets start flying and they've seen people die, they tend to only care about competence. They don't care the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, your gender. If you won't get them killed in the battlefield, you're OK by them. And that tends to be - that's been my experience with people's reaction to women in combat.

GROSS: But you didn't always have such a welcoming atmosphere in the military. I mean...

HEGAR: True, yeah.

GROSS: You had to transfer out of one unit because the men were so hostile to you because you were a woman. There's an instance where you were sexually assaulted by the military doctor who was doing your physical and told you he needed to do a gynecological exam even though he wasn't supposed to be doing it and you had just had your gynecological exam performed by a gynecologist. And this exam turned into an assault.

HEGAR: Right.

GROSS: It wasn't, like, an easy ride for you.

HEGAR: No. It wasn't an easy ride. But I want to point out that the unit that I transferred out of - and this is so critical to understand because it's the insidious nature of discrimination - 98 percent of those guys had no problem with the fact that I was a woman. Maybe that number's high. Ninety-eight percent never, you know, let me see that they had a problem with the fact that I was a woman. So it wasn't that I faced a lot of discrimination by that unit. But the problem was the very open and aggressive discrimination that I did face, the people who witnessed it turned and looked away.

GROSS: You think the key for really accepting women in combat positions is ending the predatory culture in the military. So would you explain what you mean by that?

HEGAR: Yes. So one of the other arguments that people like to bring up against women in combat, they like to pretend - or, you know, I say pretend, but I think that some of them are genuinely - they genuinely believe that they're doing the right thing. They like to act as though it comes from a place where they're trying to protect women. I'm not anti-woman. I'm anti-women in combat because I love women, and I want to protect them. And why should you want them? You know, you're a horrible warmonger, and you want to send them off to combat. And that's just not the case. The sexual assault epidemic in the military is brought up a lot as a reason not to allow women on the frontlines. That argument holds absolutely no water for a couple reasons.

First of all, there's a lot more men than women who are victims of sexual assault in the military. That's not talked about very much. And that's just by nature of the fact that there's a lot more men in the military than there are women. The sexual assault epidemic, through the research that I've done - and I'm no, you know, Ph.D. in psychology or anything like that. But through the people that I've talked to and the research that I've done, I have a good friend who's - who used to be - she used to head the program at the Pentagon for sexual assault victims. I have found that it's not a sexual gratification type of epidemic. It is more of a - like my situation with the gynecologist - or the doctor who wasn't a gynecologist - who insisted on giving me a very rough and abusive gynecological exam.

It's more about, I have power over you. I am entitled to do this. And you will listen to me and do as I say. And that is, you know, that is a shade of gray away from a culture that needs to exist in the military of following orders and, you know, taking circumstances that are unpleasant and having to do as you're told. It is people taking advantage of that culture, and trying to show that they're, you know, entitled and own you to the extent that they also own your body, and can do whatever they want to you.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Jennings Hegar. She's the recipient of the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. And she served in the California Air National Guard, was deployed three times to Afghanistan. Her new memoir is called "Shoot Like A Girl." I should mention she was also the plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against the Defense Department saying it was unconstitutional to exclude women from ground combat positions. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN AWAY FROM MY DOOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar. She was a helicopter pilot with the California Air National Guard. She's flown missions ranging from putting out wildfires to rescue missions in Afghanistan, where she did three tours. On her third tour in 2009, she was shot down on a medevac mission and sustained wounds, resulting in her being awarded the Purple Heart. And her actions on the mission firing back at the Taliban saved the lives of her crew and patients, earning her the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device. She has a new memoir called "Shoot Like A Girl."

So what are the unique properties of the type of helicopter you flew with the Air National Guard? It was an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. I have no idea what that means.

HEGAR: Well, a lot of people would know the Blackhawk. They've seen the Blackhawk in movies. And that's a UH-60. That's the Army version. It's a troop transport. So it's basically you take a Blackhawk, and you throw a couple of external fuel tanks in the inside in the cargo department because we don't have to carry as many troops, but we do need extra fuel. You throw a refueling probe on the front because we have to be able to aerial refuel all in the name of search and rescue. Because you go out to the last known position of the aircraft that's crashed or the boat or, you know, wherever you're searching for someone.

And you have to be able to stay on scene. We call it loiter. You have to be able to loiter as long as necessary to find the survivor. So we also have upgraded avionics that enable us to see in really bad weather or really low illumination at night. So it's a really beautiful aircraft. And it just has a lot of upgraded capabilities from the Blackhawk to enable us to do our mission.

GROSS: One of your specialties was refueling in air. Can you just give us a short summary of what that takes?

HEGAR: I mean, even just you mentioning it gets my blood boiling (laughter). I just love aerial refueling. It is so much fun. You position yourself behind - in my case, given my aircraft that I fly - you position yourself behind a C-130. That C-130 will deploy a hose that has a little parachute on the end of it, for lack of a better term. And that hose kind of comes out. And then you extend your probe. And you do a run in to the basket and try to get your probe inside that - I think it's 18 inches - that 18-inch diameter and get a good solid plug. And then the gas flows from the C-130 through the hose into the back of your aircraft.

GROSS: That sounds like real precision work.

HEGAR: Yes, it is. And there's, you know, tricks that I used to employ. This is something that really makes our back-ender very nervous. And a back-ender is, you know, a flight engineer, a gunner, a PJ, anybody who you happen to have in the back of your aircraft because you're flying very close to the C-130 and sometimes next to another aircraft. And you're also attached to - if you do it right, you're attached to that aircraft. So you have to be very careful there obviously. It's a very precision maneuver where a lot of people have been hurt or killed.

And probably the second biggest compliment I've gotten in my career was when a couple back-enders came to me and said, we never want to be refuel with anyone else. We just want to refuel with you. (Laughter) And that made me feel great. So yes, it's a precision maneuver. You've got to make sure you're not squeezing the controls.

I used to actually sing to myself off-microphone. So the people in the aircraft that would be watching me as I'm refueling - most of them were staring at the giant aircraft out the window - but if they glanced at me, they would see me singing (laughter) and see my lips moving, so.

GROSS: What would you sing?

HEGAR: Oh, gosh. (Laughter) I don't know. I can remember singing "The Rose" by - I think it was Bette Midler (laughter). I don't know why. It was just a song that was stuck in my head (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. You write that you liked to sing to yourself because it prevented you from overthinking.

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: Was that a trap, overthinking when you're doing...

HEGAR: Absolutely.

GROSS: Why is that a trap?

HEGAR: Because you have all these people's lives in your hands. If you sneeze, you could kill everybody onboard. It's a very delicate maneuver. You know, with pilots, We - we're cognizant of the fact that we have lives in our hands, but we also need to look cool. So if you do something wrong during aerial refueling, you really don't look cool if you miss the basket or, you know, God forbid, do something that damages either aircraft. So it's a high, high-stress, high-pressure maneuver, but that's usually where I'm the most comfortable.

GROSS: You've had to fly through wildfires.

HEGAR: Yes. That was a lot of fun.

GROSS: ...To help put them out? Were you dumping water on them or...

HEGAR: You know, we were getting directed by the firefighters on the ground, and it was really more, you know, drench this area so the wildfire doesn't spread and that type of thing. But that did necessitate, you know, flying through smoke which is really dangerous because you're flying low to the trees and the terrain, and, you know, having to keep from hitting other aircraft and hitting the ground.

GROSS: And then there was the time you flew over a burning marijuana field without realizing that it was marijuana, and you all got high.

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HEGAR: Yes (laughter). We didn't know we were high 'cause...

GROSS: That's a really hilarious story. Well, you had never smoked marijuana, so you...

HEGAR: We were all very clean...

GROSS: ...Didn't even know the experience.

HEGAR: Exactly. Well, when you're getting, you know, urine tested every 90 days or so then it's not usually an experience that you have. We were in an area of California - we were actually supporting - I was a member of the counter-drug task force. My crew was on the counter-drug task force, so we were actually there doing marijuana eradication.

But the locals were very angry with us because of the reason that we were there. And they would drive by and honk their horns and flip us off and shake fists at us, and we would just kind of laugh it off. You know, I'm like, you know, telling them I'm sorry for making the price of their pot go up. And (laughter) so we were not very popular when we were doing that mission. And when the wildfires of 2008 came through California, we were in a very dense marijuana area, obviously, because we were doing marijuana eradication.

So when that area caught on fire, none of us really thought that it could be in the amounts that would affect us. You know, I'm sure somebody somewhere probably cracked a joke about the fact that these marijuana fields were on fire, but we didn't realize we were flying over a big one and that we had all the smoke in the cabin. And we started being kind of giddy. And it was really later when we landed, and we were actually texting with my squadron commander who, you know, was squadron commander, somebody that you respect and you say sir and you deal with very differently than you do your crewmates.

And he could tell by the conversation over text with my crew that something was going on, and he texted the aircraft commander and said are you guys high? And my aircraft commander looked at me and showed me the text, and I looked at him. And I was like, oh, my God, we are. I can't believe it. And we happened to be sitting in a diner, and we were eating everything in sight and just laughing and having a good time. So I'm not here to advocate drug use, but it was an interesting experience.

GROSS: Sounds like you liked the high.

HEGAR: Well, you know, it was the only time we've ever experienced it. So I guess, you know, mark it off the bucket list.

GROSS: My guest is Major Mary Jennings Hegar. Her new memoir is called "Shoot Like A Girl." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "HOME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Major Mary Jennings Hegar. She was an Air National Guard search and rescue pilot who did three tours in Afghanistan and received a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device. She has a new memoir called "Shoot Like A Girl."

So your memoir is called "Shoot Like A Girl," which sounds like it's an insult, but when you're...

HEGAR: Yes.

GROSS: When the person training you told you that you shoot like a girl, that was a compliment. So explain why that was a compliment.

HEGAR: Now I think it's more popular to say you do something like a girl, and it makes people raise their eyebrows. Like, do you mean that as a compliment or an insult (laughter)? And it's becoming more - I think it's great. We're taking the phrase back, I think. But, you know, 10 years ago, when I was - or more than that, gosh - when I was told that I shoot like a girl, at first I was a little affronted. Like, you know, but wait a second, I just scored expert again on rifle and handgun, and I was awarded expert marksman multiple times. So I was confused by the statement, and the instructor saw the confusion in my face and said, no, no, no, no, I actually mean that as the highest compliment.

You know, the Russians used to employ women as snipers, and women are just stereotypically - which I'm not a big fan of talking in stereotypes, but stereotypically, physiologically, women are very well-suited to being expert marksmen. I don't fully understand it myself, but the way he explained it was it had to do with a center of gravity, respiration, your circulatory system, your heart rate and also a mental aspect.

Especially at the range, he said that, you know, men tend to stand toe to toe next to each other and immediately want to compete with each other and define their masculinity by how well they shoot, whereas there may be some pressure on women - I always put pressure on myself to do well - but it was a different kind of pressure in general where we would step up and be competing against ourselves and not mentally taking ourselves out of the game before we even pulled the trigger.

GROSS: When you stopped flying, you didn't have the flying to get your adrenaline going. You had some degree of PTSD, and you say that your brain's chemistry had reset the bar for what was thrilling and death defying while you were flying. And so when when you were home afterwards, you were looking for substitutes, and you started driving your motorcycle harder and faster. You went skydiving. What exactly were you looking for when you were doing that? What were - what did you require?

HEGAR: That's a great question, Terry, and that's why you're sitting in the chair you're in because that's a very (laughter) that's a great question. I'm not 100 percent sure. I was facing a little bit of an existential crisis, I think. I had been very religious in high school. And when I lost my dad when I was 19 and I had a couple of bad experiences in organized religion, being told, you know, oh, well, we don't let women read from the Bible or - you know, different churches and different, you know, denominations have their different rules, so don't get me wrong. I don't mean to paint with a broad brush there, but I had had some negative experiences.

And then I lost my dad, and it put me into a place where I was more agnostic than religious. And I believed more that nothing happened for a reason and there was just - you know, the universe was beautiful chaos. But it's difficult to go through a situation like the shoot-down. The fact that we all came through that after about five times of happy accidents that kept us all alive, it's difficult to look back on that and say that there was no design, there was no, you know, well, we're meant for something, we're meant to go on and do something.

And even now as I say it, I feel a little naive even saying that. But coming home and meeting my soulmate and having these two beautiful children, it's just difficult to walk away from that experience and think that there's nothing out there. So I think when I came home from the shoot-down and I knew I wasn't going to be flying anymore and I was looking for that adrenaline, it was more than that. I was also trying to get back in touch with that part of me. I often tell people that when you're in a situation like that, when you've been shot and you're on the ground and you're receiving fire, or if you run into a burning building to try to save someone, or you're just met with any kind of situation like that, you meet yourself for the first time and you really know what you're made of.

And I was trying to find myself again and have a conversation with myself again, I think. And so pushing myself to the point where I started to realize I'm going to kill myself if I don't stop, you know, driving the motorcycle that fast around the curves and jumping out of airplanes and everything else and I need to shift my focus to something else. I don't do anything halfway. I don't know if you've picked up on that from my story but...

(LAUGHTER)

HEGAR: So I was fully committed to killing myself on a motorcycle, and I had to sell it (laughter). So I bought a muscle car and moved back home to Austin and met my soulmate.

GROSS: So...

HEGAR: Or re-met (ph).

GROSS: So what are you getting - that sense of adrenaline or thrill or larger connections, some kind of, like, larger spiritual connection that you were looking for, what's giving that to you now?

HEGAR: Definitely my children. I think that to an unhealthy degree I look around the world and all I see are things that can kill my children.

(LAUGHTER)

HEGAR: I'm like, that's sharp. He can fall on that (laughter) you know? And I think that more than is probably true, I have a sense that I'm here to protect my kids. And you know, seeing the people - I've seen real evil. Like, I think that some people go through life thinking that things - really bad things happen to other people. And I don't have that luxury anymore. But I've - my pendulum has swung the other way, which is probably equally untrue, that I feel like all the bad things that could happen are going to happen.

So I definitely get that sense of purpose by accepting the responsibility that my job is to raise - in my situation, I have two boys, so strong men to go out and live lives worth living and be good people and compassionate and go out and make a dent in the world. So that's my new mission.

GROSS: It's been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for your service. Congratulations on your new baby and on your new memoir (laughter). Thank you so much.

HEGAR: Thank you so much, Terry. I appreciate it. Thank you.

GROSS: Mary Jennings Hegar is the author of the new memoir "Shoot Like A Girl." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with David Remnick and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker about Trump, Putin and the new cold war, or our interview with Neal Brennan who co-created and co-wrote "Chappelle's Show" and has a new Netflix comedy special, check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheean, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

We're closing with a 1959 Charles Mingus recording featuring pianist Horace Parlan. Parlan died one week ago. He was 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "MY JELLY ROLL SOUL")

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