Women At War

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Santere said McGrath’s bombing of the compound was “one of the biggest explosions I’ve ever seen on the ground.”

Following their introductions, McGrath showed Santere around the squadron and introduced him to the other crew members in the flight: Virge, Tuck, and Mongo. Later that night, Santere brought two Cokes to the ready room tent. He and McGrath sat outside behind the tent and drank the Cokes while sharing combat stories and experiences at the Naval Academy, where he had graduated a year before her. “I always thought that was the coolest thing,” she said, “sitting outside that tent, chilling out, drinking a Coke with the ground forward air controller that we directly supported one month prior.”

McGrath has completed more than 85 combat missions and 350 combat flight hours over Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. She shrugs when asked about whether women should fly in combat because of the possibility of being sexually assaulted if shot down, the reason why women were prohibited from flying until 1993. Many people have difficulty imagining and accepting the sexual abuse that captured women might have to endure. They envision their mothers, wives, and daughters in those situations and it is simply incomprehensible. But McGrath thinks that it is ridiculous to say a woman should not fly jets because she may endure more pain than her male counterpart in enemy hands. “It’s going to be as shitty for guys as it is for women,” she says. “It’s war. Horrible things happen.”  

McGrath recalls one day in the chow hall when she and Larsen had the conversation all combat aviators have about their plan for action if shot down. Some military aviators chose to save their last bullet for each other, while others save that last round for themselves. 

Larsen leaned forward. “Hey, I’ve got 15 rounds in my nine millimeter and another 15 right here next to me. If we go down, I’m using all 30.”

“I’m using all 30, too,” McGrath said. “I’ve got a knife after that.”

When the conversation ended, they did not shake hands. It was not that kind of pact. Nor would the subject come up again. If downed, they would spend their last round on the enemy and die in a hail of bullets. They would not be captured alive. 

Since returning from the Middle East, McGrath has expressed mixed emotions about her role in the war. For military aviators, a certain amount of satisfaction goes along with destroying a target. Yet taking out other targets continued to bother her.

“The mission where I had to take out underground barracks first thing in the morning that was a little different.” The F-18s have a forward-looking infrared (FUR) system, or Nighthawk, on the side of the aircraft’s fuselage. The FUR looks like a small missile but it’s really a camera that takes pictures using the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. It helps aviators see heat. McGrath punched in coordinates that targeted barracks where Iraqi troops were sleeping. Then she watched as the missiles launched and destroyed the barracks. On the FUR monitor she could see Iraqis running for their lives. Watching those white figures against a green background made the war personal in another way. It forced McGrath to see those objects as humans. The killing aspect is hard,” she said. “There really isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of the human toll. No matter what side, we’re all human.”

When she returned from Iraq, McGrath brought the war with her. Like so many generations before her, she would have to learn how to cope with the emotional scars of combat. 

Two months after coming home, McGrath flew from California to Breckenridge, Colorado, for a family wedding, which would be the first time she had seen many of them since her return. They thanked her for her service and commended her courage. Some wanted to hear combat stories. All the attention overwhelmed McGrath. My God, she thought, I’ve just killed hundreds of people and everyone is congratulating me. It didn’t make sense. Close to tears, McGrath stood in the doorway between the wedding reception and the patio. 

Her uncle, Dave Vogel, a Vietnam vet who served in Da Nang from 1968 to 1969, spotted her. He recognized the look of sadness and grew concerned that McGrath was getting down on herself for her role in the war. He knew how difficult it was to return to the States and be left alone to rationalize the role you had in killing others. He realized that she probably did things in Iraq of which she wasn’t proud. She was probably questioning her actions. From experience, he also knew that she needed to trust herself more than anything. 

He walked over to her and said in a soft voice, “I know. I know.”

The experiment involving the largest band of sisters to serve in combat in U.S. history has been a success. America’s mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives have run convoys on the most dangerous roads in Iraq, manned vehicles and personnel checkpoints, performed route clearance operations, and conducted quick reaction force operations when others got hit on the road with IEDs. They have been shot and returned fire. While no one enjoys hearing about women wounded or killed in combat, there’s no question that these soldiers have served with courage and pride, and shown physical, mental, and emotional strength.


 

Adapted from Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq (Stackpole Books 2007).