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Women At War

May 2024
18min read

For the first time in U.S. history, women are fighting alongside their male their male counterparts—so far 110 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan

McGrath was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Marine Corps, as well as the first to pilot the F/A-18 on a combat mission.

Early on March 20, 2003, when the desert sky was still shrouded in darkness, stadium lights shone down on Al Jabar Air Base in Kuwait and lit the path to the flight line for a 28-year-old Marine captain whose jumpsuit ID tag bore the name “McGrath.” 

The aviator strode briskly across the flight line with other pilots from the Green Knights all-weather fighter/attack squadron. Like millions of U.S. Marines and soldiers before, McGrath was heading into combat. Like the hundreds of combat aviators flying from Al Jabar and other air bases in the region that day, McGrath had trained with a squadron to be here, cost the U.S. government $1 million for a year’s worth of preparation, and was responsible for a $50 million aircraft. And like nearly 20 percent of the personnel in combat support and service units about to enter Iraq, McGrath was a woman. 

How she and other women in the U.S. military performed in jets and helicopters, on aircraft carriers, in convoys and in surgical wards, and when they came face-to-face with enemy prisoners of war, would validate or refute one of the most radical, controversial, and public experiments in the annals of U.S. military history. The eyes of the enemy were on her as she took off. So were the eyes of her countrymen. Would she and other women be successful? 

How she and other women in the U.S. military performed in jets and helicopters, on aircraft carriers, in convoys and in surgical wards, and when they came face-to-face with enemy prisoners of war, would validate or refute one of the most radical, controversial, and public experiments in the annals of U.S. military history.

From the Amazons of Greek mythology and Joan of Arc to the women warriors trained by the Soviet Union and Israel, women have long served in combat, but not in the United States. For more than 200 years, women have worn a U.S. uniform in times of war as nurses, soldiers, and spies. In World War I, 30,000 women who could not even vote served in support roles. A profound turning point for women in the military came after Pearl Harbor, when Army and Navy nurses worked side by side tending to more than 2,000 wounded servicemen. 

In many ways, the 1991 Gulf War marked a watershed for U.S. military women: More than 40,000 went to war, four times the number who served in Vietnam, where only one died from enemy fire. In the first Gulf War, eleven women were killed in action; two were taken prisoners of war. 

Yet, it was not until after the first Gulf War ended that major policy changes occurred. President Clinton signed  the military bill ending combat exclusion for  women on warships. Despite the recommendation of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered all branches of the armed services to open combat aviation to women in 1993. About 80 percent of the jobs and more than 90 percent of the career fields in the armed forces are now available to the best qualified and available person, regardless of gender. In 1994 the USS Eisenhower, a Navy aircraft carrier, received sixty women.

In today’s war, women are often as vulnerable as men, even though they cannot drive tanks or serve in the infantry. But driving humvees and trucks, as well as flying jets and helicopters puts women often in harm’s way. Since the war began in March 2003, more than a hundred women have been killed and more than 400 have been wounded in Iraq. [See  American Heritage’s tribute to United States women who have given their lives.] 

The stories of captains Amy McGrath and Robin Brown told here illustrate some of the challenges faced by women in combat. How would the women and the individual branches of the military respond in the harrowing days, months, and years to come? Was the Army prepared to send thousands of women into combat? Were the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy? And were the women ready for what lay ahead? How willing were they to adapt? 

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Whitewolf Zero Six, we’re going down!” shouted Army Captain Robin Brown into the mouthpiece attached to her helmet. Just moments earlier, she and Chief Warrant Officer Two Jeff Sumner, pilots of a Kiowa Warrior helicopter, heard a large explosion, felt their aircraft lurch forward, shake violently, and then begin a free fall. Warning sounds erupted in the cockpit and lights flashed. 

Brown grabbed her shoulder harness and locked herself in. She reached for the “microphone,” located on the cyclic, which controls the forward, backward, left, and right movement of the helicopter. It took a second for Brown to grasp the violently shaking cyclic. Sumner had his hand on the collective, a joystick used to raise and lower the aircraft.

She repeated her Mayday call. 

As commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 82nd Aviation Regiment, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Brown led a company of 26 pilots, who flew Kiowa helicopters on armed reconnaissance missions. In Iraq, their primary mission was to respond to an attack on a moment’s notice, a.k.a. quick response force (QRF). The missions were extremely stressful for the pilots, who received information on their way out the door. Seldom did they know exactly what they were flying into when they arrived at the scene of a conflict. A battle could be ongoing or it could have just ended, with insurgents still fighting or fleeing. 

Once airborne, Brown kept an eye on all the activity both in the sky and on the ground, took care of navigation, and maintained communications. Kiowas fly low and fast, thirty to fifty feet above the ground (about the height of a two-story house) and at speeds of 85 to 90 knots, slow enough to observe activities on the ground, yet fast enough to avoid small arms fire and shoulder-launched missiles. 

Brown’s aircraft got hit on December 9, 2003, four months into her Iraq deployment. Twenty-eight-year-old Brown, thirty-one-year-old Sumner, and their sister ship with two other pilots had just provided security for a convoy delivering new currency to Baghdad and were making the hour-and-a-half flight back to the Al Taqaddum Air Base. 

Brown’s ship trailed the lead aircraft, flown by Chief Warrant Officer Three Mark Teeden, a veteran pilot at thirty-eight, and Chief Warrant Officer Two Chris Wallace, 26 years old and fresh out of flight school. The two aircraft flew over open fields and came to a dam they regularly used as a checkpoint to let headquarters at the airfield know they were inbound.

“Pegasus Ops Whitewolf Zero Six is a flight of two KWs inbound, currently at the dam,” Brown informed the airfield. As the lead aircraft started to cross the Euphrates River, Brown and Sumner, less than 500 feet behind, moved from the right to the left, varying their flight pattern so as not be a target. When Teeden felt the explosion he could not see it because Kiowas have no rear view. He broke hard to the left and then back around to the right to vary its flight pattern. 

Sumner put his aircraft into auto-rotation, an emergency technique pilots learn in flight school designed to keep air flowing through the rotors so the blades will continue to turn. At the same time, 

Sumner carefully lowered the collective to slow the blades. If he reduced the speed of the blades too quickly, the aircraft wouldn’t have enough lift and would smash into the ground. He was also pushing 

the cyclic forward to gain more air speed. 

Sumner strained to keep the helicopter steady. Otherwise, the vibrating aircraft could gain forward motion and flip over when it hit the ground. Brown kept asking herself, ‘What’s my next step?’, then went on to the next thing as though everything was occurring in slow motion. 

Right before they hit, with the aircraft still shaking out of control, Sumner pulled up on the collective at the last second, flattening the blades, which helped cushion a jarring landing. The aircraft fell slowly to the plowed field and landed slightly on the back of its skids. Then the momentum of the fuselage pushed the aircraft slightly forward. If they had been any higher when they were hit, the helicopter would have disintegrated.

By the time the pilots in the lead aircraft came back around, Brown was on the ground. Teeden identified the position of the downed Kiowa and radioed the airfield and reported a “lame duck,” code for a downed aircraft. Wallace switched to an emergency frequency and waited for Brown to radio him.

When the aircraft rocked forward, its rotor blades hacked at the ground, promising to fly apart and slice the pilots to pieces. Both put their hands over their heads. 

When the blades stopped spinning and the pilots uncovered their eyes, sand filled the cockpit. We made it, Brown remembers thinking. Neither had been injured. They shared a smile.  

But black smoke billowed from the engine and flames licked the pods holding rockets that could explode at any second. They hurriedly crawled out of the cockpit. 

Brown ran with some effort toward a large irrigation ditch near the field. The equipment she wore amounted to three quarters of her entire body weight. In addition to their helmets and desert flight suits, made of the Nomex, the same fire-resistant material fabric worn by firefighters and race cardrivers, Brown wore 30-pound Kevlar-and- ceramic armor and a 45-pound survival vest. Everything Brown needed to survive over a twenty-four-hour period was tucked somewhere in one of her vest’s many pockets: flares, smoke canisters, water purification tablets, razor blades, a mirror for signaling, flash- light, matches, knives, candy, wet wipes, toilet paper, and a radio. Longer-term survival kits, including pup tents, were kept in the aircraft.

Sumner joined Brown, crouched in bushes not far from the aircraft. Each firmly grasped a 9mm pistol. They needed distance between them and the Kiowa. 

In the sky, Wallace and Teeden circled around a second time. When Teeden did not see the other Kiowa in the air, he scanned the ground for smoke and assumed the worse. Then, as he continued on his flight path and looked down 150 yards from his turn, he saw the aircraft sitting upright, smoking. If Brown’s Kiowa was on fire, and the pilots were still in the aircraft, he and Wallace could pull them out. He started to tell Wallace to look for a place for them to land when they spotted Brown and Sumner running. 

Wallace immediately attempted to call Brown on UHF and VHF frequencies. “No luck,” he said in frustration. The four pilots were like family, having flown as a team for the past 120 days. Pilots working stateside went their separate ways after work. Not so in combat overseas. Pilot teams walked together to chow, the showers, and even the phone. They ate, worked, and slept near one another. When a team member received mail or a package, they all shared in the excitement. 

The three others knew all details about how Brown and her husband, Jason, who was a Kiowa pilot stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, were restoring a house built in 1921: painting the interior walls white and turning three small rooms into one large one. The lives of the four Kiowa pilots depended on that kind of closeness and knowledge of one another.

While Teeden and Wallace could not pick up Brown’s mayday calls, a nearby Air Force A-10, specially designed for close air support of ground forces, did hear her. 

From the air, Wallace spotted two Iraqis, who were fleeing the crash site and then jumped into a ditch, about 200 yards up the river from Brown and Sumner. Teeden decided against firing on them, because the suspects were fleeing the area and were not firing on them. Rules of engagement stated that firing was permissible if you were in direct fire. 

Other Iraqis were walking and driving along the main road that led out of Fallujah toward the crash site. Brown and Sumner were unaware that the crash had attracted a growing number of spectators, until the A-10 pilot warned them about the mob now surrounding their aircraft. Vehicles had also started to arrive. Be on your guard, warned the pilot. 

Brown and Sumner sprinted from one spot to another, angling for a better  position, covering one another with their 9mm pistols as they moved. 

Then they started to hear gunfire, lots of it.

Brown looked at Sumner and both erupted in gales of nervous laughter. 

“Jeff, tell me that’s our fifty-cal cooking off from the heat of the aircraft on fire.”

He looked at her but did not say anything.

“Is it or isn’t it?” she asked, giggling. “Are they shooting in the air?”

They were accustomed to seeing Iraqis fire their munitions into the air as a sort of celebratory fire. Or, it could be Iraqis shooting at them or their rescuers.

“Tell me it is,” she said.

“Yeah it is,” he said, but neither knew, not being able to see the helicopter from their position. Still laughing, they joked about whether the Army would send them home because they had been through the trauma of being shot down.

Just then, Sumner and Brown looked up to see a young boy with a bike staring down at them. They decided to let him go, knowing that he would probably reveal their position. In the meantime, trucks had converged on the site of the downed helicopter and honked their horns in celebration. 

They could wait no longer and both raced up the hill. Fortunately, the Iraqis were walking away from the pilots and didn’t see them. The pair ran across the street and down into a patch of 12-foot grass along the Euphrates River, now so well hidden that their sister ship lost track of them. 

Sumner pulled out a two-by-two-foot fluorescent orange panel that he had purchased and tucked in his survival vest for this very situation. He laid it out and when Wallace and Teeden flew overhead, they spotted it.

“I GOT HIM! I GOT HIM!” Wallace shouted to his co-pilot.

He pointed to Sumner so the pilots on the ground would know they had been spotted.

Moments after the crash, a quick force was mobilized. When ground elements arrived, they secured the aircraft and got rid of the crowds. Wallace and Teeden found a safe location for two Black Hawks to land and pick up the pilots. With an A-10 providing security, as well as three Kiowas now on the scene and one incoming, the Black Hawks landed with a security force from Brown’s company. Teeden’s aircraft was running out of gas but he refused to leave until he saw his friends board a Black Hawk.

When the Black Hawks landed, a dozen soldiers poured out of each helicopter and formed a circle around the aircraft. After what felt like a long time, Brown and Sumner began to worry that their rescuers couldn’t find them. Their training told them to sit on their knees and wait for rescue, because moving from their position might expose them to hostile forces. 

But Brown and Sumner decided to move anyway and ran up to the ridgeline. The soldiers fanned out, facing away from the Black Hawks and carrying M4s, automatic weapons, and grenade launchers. A soldier found the pilots and pulled them into the circle, which then closed back in on the aircraft. Within four minutes of touching down, the Black Hawks had taken off with the downed pilots safely aboard. 

Aboard the Black Hawk, Brown kept slapping Sumner on the leg, proud that they had remained calm and rational. As soon as they reached the airfield, the pilots were taken to the first aid station, checked over, and then debriefed. It wasn’t until Brown sat down in the station that she realized she was bruised from hitting the dash. But what startled Brown the most was that the entire ordeal had transpired between 2:10 pm when they were hit and 3:30 pm, when the Black Hawk brought them back. She felt like she had been on the ground for four or five hours. 

Several hours later, Brown called her parents in Texas. Nothing about her voice, tone, or attitude was different from any other conversation they’d had. 

“Dad, what’s up?”

“Hey Robin, it’s good to hear from you. What are you doing?” 

“I’m just calling to check on you, see what you’re doing.”

 “I’m getting ready to go to work,” he said. It was 6:45 am. in Texas. 

“Oh, working banker’s hours?” Robin had made fun of him ever since he’d joined the civilian world. She thought 6:45 a.m. was late.

“Cut that out. Why are you calling at this hour in the morning?”

“I have to tell you before you hear it someplace else. First of all, I’m okay and so is Jeff.”


“Well, we got shot down today over Fallujah. We think it was an RPG.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Three hours.”

She wanted him to know she was okay before he saw a television news report about a downed chopper. Speechless, Mr. Brown looked over at his wife, Kathleen, who was still in bed and said, “Robin’s okay.” 

“What do you mean Robin’s okay?” asked his wife.

He handed the phone to Kathleen so she could talk to her daughter.

Her dad walked into the living room, turned on CNN, and saw a picture of Robin’s helicopter burning, looking like a piece of crumpled foil. The announcer reported that the condition of the crew was unknown. Robin’s call had saved them untold heartache.

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.

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).


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