Female aviators defy reported odds
March 21, 2011
- Female aviators are filling new roles never before open to them
- Statistics say women aren't filling enough leadership roles, but the statistics match the number of women serving in the military
- Women are enjoying more freedom to progress than ever before
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (March 21, 2011) -- When Chief Warrant Officer 4 Trudy Truax arrived at her first unit as an OH-58A pilot in 1996, her commander refused her orders.
"I've had my own battalion commanders not speak to me," Truax said.
Truax was one of the first females to join the community of Cobra, Apache and Kiowa pilots after then-President Bill Clinton lifted the restrictions that kept women from flying the traditionally combat-focused rotary-wing birds. She was one of only six women in her class - three from West Point and three warrant officers.
Today, she's the only one of the six still serving in the Army, and she serves as the standardization instructor pilot for Company C (Dustoff), 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, which is currently deployed to Afghanistan with Task Force Thunder, the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade.
According to a study released earlier this month by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, women account for only 16 percent of leadership positions in the military - a seemingly staggering statistic to release during National Women's History Month. The numbers aren't so shocking when compared to the overall statistic of women serving in the military, which is 16.4 percent, according to a Sept. 30 report released by the Department of Defense.
To Truax and the other women who fill key positions within the aviation community, the numbers are just that - numbers. And they don't take into account the positions that women are holding within the military or where they were 20 years ago.
Lt. Col. Neil Reilly, the squadron commander for 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, was assigned to 2nd Sqdn., 17th Cav. Rgt., in 1998. With him was then-Warrant Officer Anne Wiley, who had recently graduated as an OH-58 Kiowa pilot. Today, Wiley is a chief warrant officer 4 and serves as the senior standardization instructor pilot for Reilly's unit. She is the first female to hold that position at a squadron level. But she didn't get there overnight.
"I went through relentless hazing," Wiley said of her time as a new pilot and a female in a man's world. "But today, when one of my peers comes up and bumps me on the shoulder and asks how it's going, I know it was worth it, and that I've made it."
The challenges Wiley and her counterparts faced in the beginning paved the way for many who've come since.
"Flying has been my recurring dream since I was little," said Capt. Carmel Cammack, an assistant operations officer in Task Force Palehorse and an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior pilot. "I've never been treated any differently, and I appreciate the fact that (other women) were the ones to pioneer this for me. I know that they went through a lot of hazing and a rash of other stuff that I have not had to go through."
For Reilly, it's never been about gender, and Wiley and the female pilots like her have proven that time and again.
"Miss Wiley maintains a mission focus, but has the personality, the charisma, and also has the professionalism and experience that afford her a great deal of credibility," Reilly said.
For the women filling the leadership roles, the professionalism and experience are the important parts.
"As you show your competence and as you show that you can hang with the boys, you show that you're as good as the boys, your acceptance is there," Truax explained. "You must always maintain, as with any aviator, proficiency and excellence, and if you can show that's what you have, then you're fully accepted."
While Truax and Wiley have been around long enough to know what it's like to be evaluated on gender rather than competency, they've witnessed the shift throughout their careers, and the younger women coming up behind them have only experienced evaluations based on capabilities.
Capt. Donna J. Buono, the company commander for Company B, 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, which is task-organized under Reilly's unit for the deployment, was commissioned in 2004 and joined her first unit as a platoon leader while the company was deployed to Iraq. She was the first female to serve with the company in more than 15 years.
"I was anticipating a little bit of push-back," she said. "And I think what I got for about a month was less female-male stuff it was more new platoon leader, and after about that month of transition - getting used to them and getting to know 'em - I think I had a very positive experience."
"It's more about being a good leader and being competent, and much less these days about male-female," she explained.
In fact, the main challenges that limit the number of females serving in leadership positions are often brought on by their own accord rather than by restrictions or gender bias within the Army.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elizabeth Kimbrough is a pilot in command and safety officer with Co. B, 3rd Bn., 101st Avn. Rgt. She flies the AH-64D Apache, which often serves to intimidate on the battlefield. At nearly 32, Kimbrough said she loves what she does, but thinks her family is afraid she'll stay in forever.
"My time will be up after June of next year, and I'm still on the fence," she said. "I love, love my job, but I'd still like the opportunity to get married and have kids, and I don't know how I'd do it if I'd stay in. So that's something I think about nearly every single day."
Kimbrough isn't the only one facing that challenging decision.
"I have kind of fended off most relationships that have possibly started," said Cammack. "I personally think it would be extremely hard to have a family in the military. Right now I have the opportunity to say that I don't want kids in the military. I think that would be hard, and that is not something that I want to do. How that's going to play into future career' I don't know. I don't know. It's tough."
As pioneers for women in aviation, both Wiley and Truax stand as an example in this regard too. Wiley started her aviation career as a single mom. Truax has a different perspective.
"Women can be in the Army, and we can have 20-plus year careers and we can have 20-plus years married to the same man, and like I have - I have four children," she said. "I want it all. I want the cake and the ice cream. You can have a solid marriage. You can have children and still do your time in combat."
As with anything in life, it's about balance and maintaining that delicate harmony between professional and personal. But for those women who want to fill the leadership roles, the doors are far from closed.
"I never expected to be where I am today, and I never expected to be in the positions I've been in," Truax said. "Standardizations wasn't a place women went. I think the new men of the Army, new commanders, they understand, and if I didn't cut the mustard I wouldn't be in the positions I've been in. But they very much have unlocked the doors to allow us to show that we have the ability to do what we (Army aviators) do."
"I had to open the doors by proving myself, but they unlocked them for me."