RedEye

Women on the front lines: An insider's view

Vernice Armour knows a thing or two about facing adversity. She was the first African-American female pilot in the United States Marine Corps, as well as the first African-American female combat pilot. In three years she went from beat cop to flying attack helicopters in Iraq.

Now an author and motivational speaker, Armour travels the country teaching people to aim high and "create the flight plan" for success.

With the Pentagon's Feb. 9 announcement of 14,000 military jobs being targeted for women, Armour is speaking out about the challenges women face and what it takes to make it in the military.

Q: Did you ever have days where you felt like quitting?

A: Yes. I have one specific moment that I'll always remember. It was a particularly tough day. You know that saying, "Never let 'em see you sweat?" Well, I grabbed my car, drove to the beach and called my mom and I said, "I'm not doing it anymore. I give up. I'm done." I just felt like ripping the wings off my chest. And she said, "You didn't work this hard this long to give up now. Dry your eyes, and go back to work." I will never forget that because in that moment I wanted to let it all go. But that's when you need your support and your networks to keep you going.

Q: Who did you lean on for support when you were in Iraq?

A: When I was in Iraq, my mom wasn't there so it was people I bonded with — other women in the squadron. And that was a fine line as well. Out of 465 people there were only 14 women, from private to majors. And in the military you're not supposed to fraternize, and here we all are living together.

I'll never forget sitting down and talking to a corporal and I was being a mentor at this moment ... and one of the captains came up to me and said, "Why are you out there — an officer — talking to a corporal?" I explained it was a mentoring session, but they saw it as two women talking and having a good time and fraternizing. There are different challenges women are going to have, because most women will never say anything — they don't want to be seen as complaining.

Q: Was there a different set of rules for women that you found tough to navigate?

A: There are some women out there who can do more pull-ups than men, but on a general scale men are stronger than women. But women are barred from certain combat situations. So because a guy is a guy, he has the opportunity, the honor and the privilege to serve in a way that a woman cannot. There are women on the front lines right now going on raids in Iraq, called team Lioness — a special group of women trained in infantry tactics. ...

Those women are walking in harm's way just like the men, but they didn't get the training that the men got. They didn't go through the full infantry training. They had an abbreviated training, because that's the law. Not only are we doing much of the same thing, but we're putting our life on the line, with less preparation.

Q: Do you worry that maybe being so outspoken about the inequality in the military could make things more difficult for those women who are currently serving?

A: (Long pause) My dad was a Marine. He did not want me to be a Marine. He knew what the culture was like. He'd say, "I don't want my daughter, my princess, to be treated that way." And I said, "Somebody has to change this. And if not me, then who?"

We all know men run things. All of the women who are where they are right now, we owe it to those following behind us to pave the way and knock down the weeds. When you're a pioneer, you get arrows in your back. So when you look back at people who are trailblazers — especially in women's rights or civil rights — it wasn't easy. But at a certain point we have to stand for what's right. And I believe I can do more now from this side than if I was still a captain in the military.

Speaking about issues from this place, I can raise awareness. I don't call myself a motivational speaker — do I talk with people on Twitter and Facebook and corporations and help people with their challenges? Sure. But there is more to this. I want people to see me outside of the box of a pilot, or police officer. I am a woman who stands for what she believes in. I am an emerging war leader — I want to be a leader and role model on a global scale. If we are not aspiring to be leaders then what are we doing?

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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