Women At War

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Brown, Sumner, and their sister ship started flying again three days after they were shot down. Before being shot down, Brown had learned to control her fear. Afterwards, she felt vulnerable. Teeden compared the fear level of flying over Fallujah to being thrown into a tank with a great white shark and only a raft to float on. “It’s just a matter of time before he comes and eats you,” he said. 

This was one of many times Brown appreciated having Sumner beside her in the cockpit. He helped to calm her nerves even though he was scared as well. “We had to be strong for each other.”

Brown and Sumner had been lucky. The shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile that had downed them had been fooled by a disco-ball shaped instrument mounted on top of the aircraft that projects heat behind the helicopter and away from the engine. The SA16 missile got very close to the body of the aircraft but never actually hit it, instead veering off and hitting a rotor blade. Had the missile hit the aircraft, they would be dead.

On her second deployment, three weeks later, Brown was eating lunch in the chow hall when her first sergeant rushed up to her and told her that her friend Captain Kimberly Hampton, a twenty-seven-year-old female Kiowa pilot from another battalion, had been shot down. Brown dropped her fork and raced to the operations center. Calls flooded the frequencies. Finally, someone said there was one female KIA, or killed in action. The pilots had no control of the aircraft as it was flung into the ground. Hampton was the first KIA in their unit during the war with Iraq.

Coping with Hampton’s death was the hardest part of Brown’s eight-month deployment. It was even more difficult than her own near-death experience. Not necessarily because the two women were such good friends. They hadn’t had a lot of time to get to know one another because they flew on different shifts and had hectic flying schedules. 

But it was the parallels between the two incidents that Brown found so disturbing. They were both female commanders flying trail. Hampton was only two kilometers from where Brown had been shot down, flying the same type of mission, at the same time of day. The same type of missile that had hit Brown’s aircraft had struck Hampton’s Kiowa, only this time exploding the engine and the tail boom.

Once again, she and Sumner had to put a crash behind them. “You always wonder whether you will be able to handle it if something bad happens,” says Brown. “Well, I got a chance to find out. I feel very lucky that I know that about myself. That’s the only way it defines me.”

 

Several days after the war started in Iraq, captains Amy McGrath and Andrew Larsen were flying routine reconnaissance mission in their F-18 fighter jet when they received orders to fly close air support near An Nasariyah. Two bloody battles near the city had raged for hours as U.S.-led forces made a relentless advance to Baghdad. 

In one area, a paramilitary group loyal to Saddam Hussein had been attacking Marines with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons on the ground for a day and a half. The troops desperately needed air support and determined that the attacks came from a compound several miles away. On the ground, Dennis Santere had relayed target coordinates to two F-18 fighter jets already in the area. McGrath was the weapons’ systems officer for the second jet. 

McGrath had come to rely on the 32-year-old Larsen, who sat in front of her and flew the jet. But Larsen had also come to trust McGrath, who controlled the ejection seat. He had confidence that she could pull the handle if faced with imminent death. He also believed that she could quickly and accurately track a missile launched at them and input coordinates to return fire.

A few minutes after the aircraft received the coordinates, the first fighter jet began its attack from the south, followed by McGrath and Larsen. The lead jet dropped a 2,000-pound bomb, which skipped off the roof of the compound in a cloud of dust and failed to detonate. 

The lead aircraft ordered Larsen and McGrath to press to the target and drop their bomb immediately. Santere made a small correction and gave McGrath new coordinates. Flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet and somewhere between 500 and 600 miles per hour, McGrath made her calculations and dropped her bomb. A long silence filled the radios. Then she heard a mike click, followed by Santere’s excited voice, “That was a shack.” The bomb had hit the middle of the building.

On the ground, Marines stood and cheered. They couldn’t believe that after a few concise radio conversations between ground and air forces, the enemy had been wiped out. The enemywho had them pinned downjust vanished. 

A month after the mission in An Nasiriyah, Santere returned to Al Jabar Air Base and looked back through the records to find out the call sign of the aircraft and the squadron who had flown on March 24. He then visited the squadron and found out with some surprise that Captain Amy McGrath had dropped the bomb over An Nasariyah on March 24. In all the commotion and radio noise, he had not noticed that the weapons’ systems officer was a woman. 

McGrath was working at a computer in the mission planning tent when Santere walked up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up at a young Marine captain dressed in cammies. She was quite sure she hadn’t seen him before. 

He introduced himself. She couldn’t place him, until it suddenly hit her and she stood up from her chair. 

“An Nasiriyah, right?” she said. 

“Yes,” Santere said, as he stuck out his hand. “I just wanted to thank you.” 

‘‘You’re more than welcome,” 

McGrath said, shaking his hand.