I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today we’ll hear from Lt. Col Amy McGrath. After Graduating from the US Naval Academy, McGrath joined the Marine Corps and flew 89 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2002, she became the first woman in the Marine Corps to fly in combat in the F-18.
Well, I saw a History Channel documentary, actually, when I was about 12 years old. I was doing a project for middle school, and my father had said, "Well, why don't you watch the History Channel because they have some things on..." I had to do something on aircraft in World War II, or something. I watched this documentary on military aviation, and was taking notes on the World War II part. Once that was over, I continued to watch it, and when they got to the part of the high-performance jets that we have in today's day and age, I sort of just fell in love. I saw these aircraft flying onto the backs of aircraft carriers, and basically just said, "That is the coolest thing I have ever seen."
Then, there was this old, crusty Naval aviator that got on and was interviewed in this, and he said, "Well, anybody can be a pilot. But, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to be a Naval aviator. I basically just said, as a 12-year-old girl, "Well, shit. I want to be the best!" So, that's why I fell in love with Naval aviation.
I went to the library, took every single book I could find about Naval aviation. I memorized all the aircraft carriers. I knew all of the jets that we had at the time, A-6, A-7, F-14, all that stuff. And, I quickly realized that there were no women doing these jobs. I couldn't understand that, because I was like, "Wow, this is a really cool job. Why are there no women doing this?" That's when I realized there was a Federal law prohibiting women from competing, prohibiting women from being on aircraft carriers, or from flying high-performance jets in that manner.
That is when I had to sit down. I sat down with my parents, and had to learn, well, "How do you change a law?" Right? That's the beauty of this country, right? We can change laws. But how does that happen? Well, it happens from Congress. It happens from the President. The House of Representatives. The Senate. They change the law. You can advocate for change. But, you can't change it yourself. So, I became an advocate.
At 12 years old, I wrote my member of Congress. I wrote both my Senators. My member of Congress wrote me back a letter which I still have today, that basically says, if you read between the lines, it basically says, "You're a girl, go do something else." But, I didn't quit. I wrote every member of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees a letter, and told them who I was, and that I think they should change the law, and here's why.
I got several letters back that were just like my Congressman's, pretty conservative guy, no change. We don't want to change anything. Then, I got several letters back on the other side which basically was radical, at the time. But if you read the letter today, the words go like this, "Our military exists to fight and win the Nation's wars, and we should have the best people in those positions. And you ought to be able to compete. If you're good enough, you ought to be able to be given the shot to get in that cockpit." I got to tell you, that was radical in the late 80s, early 90s.
But, it makes so much sense now. I got lucky because I worked very hard in high school, and then when I was a senior in high school, the year was 1992. We had more women elected to Congress in that election that year than ever before in history. We had a new President elected who was more open-minded on these matters. The law changed three months before my graduation from high school. So, when I left home three weeks after graduating, here in Kentucky from high school to raise my right hand in Annapolis, all the doors for what I wanted to do in my life were opened up to me, because of the changing of that law.
I went to the Naval Academy thinking I would go into the Navy. I didn't know much about Marines. I had three uncles who were Marines, but I didn't know much about them. What I found when I was at Annapolis was I was very much into challenges, and that's why I wanted to go there. And, about two years through the four-year program there, I really reached a point where I felt like I had- I was doing really well. This wasn't so much of a challenge for me any more. The Marine's provided that challenge.
I remember we did MOS mixers, or mixers where the different communities tried to recruit midshipmen, and so you'd have the submariners over there in the corner and they would try to recruit the guys that were super smart, and knew a lot of numbers to go with them. And you'd have the surface warfare officers that would have the donuts over there trying to recruit, and you have the Naval aviators that had their sunglasses on and they were recruiting for pilots in the Navy.
The Marines were in the other corner, and they would just stand there, and just wait for you. You'd walk up to them and you'd say, "Well, I think I might want to be a Marine." And you could just sense that they were more evaluating you, than you were not- They weren't recruiting you, it was more like, "Are you good enough to be one of us? " That was very appealing to me. I wanted that challenge. The F-18. The two-seat version of the F-18 was also only in the Marine Corps at that time. Of course, it would later be in the Navy. But, at that time, it was only in the Marine Corps. So, that was also another pull for me. I loved it. It was everything it was advertised to be. Tough, elite, but also an incredibly close-knit family that cared about performance and excellence.
Well, flight school was a lot different than my Marine Corps training. Marine Corps training was a lot more on unit-focused team-work, "unit over self", that sort of thing. Then you go to flight school and you're kind of on your own. You don't really have a unit. You're trying to master the ability to fly this machine and you have to do it, and only you can do it. Nobody can do it for you. So, it was a fun time. It was a challenging time.
My flight school was an integrated flight school at Pensacola. We had not only Navy and Marine Corps officers, but we had Coast Guard aviators, and we had a number of international aviators. Including Saudis, Italians, and Germans. So it was really a fun, cool experience. A couple years to get your wings. Also very challenging. Not everybody makes it through.
Then, you're off to, for me, the Operational Marine Corps, where they sent you for a year to learn how to fly the F-18. And then you're in your Operational tours. It was really fun.
On 9/11, I had just joined my squadron, my first operational squadron, I think around like June of that year, in 2001. So, I was the most junior air crew in the squadron. I had the basic qualifications, and that was pretty much it. The morning of September 11th, I was on the West Coast, at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, and assigned to VMFA, so Marine all, whether a fighter attack squadron, 121, the Green Knights there. I got a phone call from my sister about 6:00, or 6:30 in the morning, West Coast time, saying, "Hey, turn on the TV, because a plane just ran into the World Trade Center." I hung up the phone and thought she was talking about a Cessna or something, and I turned on the TV right as the second plane hit the second tower. I knew, "My gosh, what is going on?". The next thing I know, I get another phone call from the duty officer in the squadron saying, "Get your rear end in here right now. We need all air crew immediately into the ready room."
It just happens that I lived close to the base. I only lived like five minutes away from the front gate. Most aviators who were more senior, and had families, lived further away. That's where they could get a house, was further away. Well, if you remember 9/11 was a very confusing day for all of us, but it was also confusing for the Military. We went to a higher DEFCON level, and in that confusion, they locked the gates to the base. So no one could get in or out. So, right as I came onto the base, I was in a few minutes after I got my car on base, they locked the gates down. And so the more senior pilots and weapons systems officers were stuck at the gate. They couldn't get in.
So, when I got into the ready room, my operations officer looked at, there were probably only five or six of us who actually made it into the ready room out of an air crew of maybe, 30. He looked around and I could sense that he was- My name was not at the top of the list of the people he wanted to put in this aircraft that was fully loaded with air-to-air missiles ready to go, but he had to, because he didn't have enough air crew. So he said, "McGrath, get suited up. You're going." So, that's what I did.
We got suited up and went to the other side of the airfield in the combined arms loading area over there, which is where they have all the live ordnance. Started up the jet with six air-to-air missiles, taxied over to the end of Runway 2-4 Left, and for the next three-and-a-half, four hours waited with all systems go, ready to launch within 20 seconds. If we were to be given the order, "Hey there's an airliner that is not listening, or is going towards Los Angeles, going towards San Diego, you're it." That was my 9/11 morning, sitting in the cockpit. As a back-seater, I was a weapons officer, so I was the one responsible for the radar, and the weapons and that sort of thing.
So, it was a surreal moment for me. I never trained to do something like this. I called it "the unthinkable" at the time. But, nevertheless, I was ready. I was ready to do what Uncle Sam would have ordered me, possibly, to do.
The first deployment for Operation Enduring Freedom happened really quickly after 9/11. We couldn't go immediately because Afghanistan was a failed state. They didn't have the runways available and we had to do the diplomatic work to get into some of these other countries where we could fly out of, namely Kyrgyzstan. So, we landed in Kyrgyzstan in early 2002. It was an old Soviet bomber base, Tupolev Tu bomber base, and I talked about this in my book, that we rebuilt. I remember literally landing there in an F-18 rolling down to the end of the runway as part of the runway is still being built. And then pulling off to the side and getting out of the aircraft. The next thing after I get out of the aircraft and take care of yourself after a long flight, the next thing to do was to pitch a tent for where we were going to work, and where we were going to live. So, it was expeditionary, just like you read about in World War II time-frame. We're literally rolling in and pitching a tent, building up this base from scratch. That was early 2002.
Five days after we got there, we started our first combat missions, and into Afghanistan, and it was a pretty confusing time. We were supporting troops on the ground. Mostly Special Forces, who were already on the ground. But, a number of international troops were on the ground, U.S. Army Troops. So, here I was, I had trained with just Marines for most of my time, and then my first combat deployment, I think we probably supported Marines maybe 10% of the time. The rest was a coalition. So, that was eye-opening. We provided close air support for them, so if they were being shot at, they could have air support during that time-frame. So that was my first deployment to Afghanistan.
Then, a few months after we got back from Afghanistan, we deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003. We did the initial Operation Southern Watch for a couple months, once we got there, and then the war kicked off, I think, in March. It was just 25 days of back-to-back-to-back missions every day. We expended a lot of ordnance and it was sort of the Wild Wild West. But, supporting Marine Forces primarily in that area, going North up into Baghdad and beyond. So, that was an extremely intense combat tour. Probably the most of all my combat tours, that was by far, the most intense.
The Afghan tour we did not drop as much ordnance. You had to be very careful about what you were doing all the time. We were careful on all missions, but there were times in Afghanistan we would just drop down to a real low altitude just to disperse crowds. We never dropped a bomb at all, but our forces felt like they were being closed in on by a crowd and we wanted everybody to know we were there. I always say, those were the best missions because we didn't have to destroy lives or property. We helped our forces just by making noise.
But, Afghanistan was a lot of waiting. It was a lot of, some people say "drilling holes in the sky." 90% probably, just up there waiting and being ready if something happened. In Afghanistan, the missions were very long. We went from Kyrgyzstan through to Tajikistan, into Northern Afghanistan just to get down into the area of responsibility was probably a two-and-a-half hour flight with some refueling along the way. So, the missions in Afghanistan were seven or eight hours long getting there and back.
Then, the missions in Iraq, we were doing three missions a day. So, my time-frame was early morning. I would do the first brief at probably three or four in the morning, launch at 5:00 AM, or 5:30 in the morning, and we'd be back by 6:30. We'd de-brief, launch again at 8:00 in the morning, be back by nine. Launch again at 10:30, and be back by 11:30. Come back, do a debrief with Intelligence, have some food or some lunch, or whatever, and then I would work on- I was a schedules officer, so I had work on the next day's schedule all the way until, probably, four or 5:00 at night, and then I would go to bed. I'd try to get some sleep, because I had to be up at 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM to do the whole thing all over again.
So, it was just extremely intense. You didn't have time to think about your targets. You didn't have time to reflect on what you were doing. You just didn't have time. I did a lot of that reflection when I came home back to the States.
I was doing an operation called Brightstar with my units. I was a fairly junior F-18 back seater at the time. I went overseas to do this with the Egyptian Air Force, this exercise. And they had never seen a woman in an F-18 cockpit. I remember opening the canopy and coming out, and it looked like the Egyptian men, their heads were going to explode or something. They had never seen anything like it.
And we did this exercise for a couple of weeks. And at the end, the commander of the Egyptian Air Forces asked our commander to have a soccer match between the two units. And in Egypt, they take their soccer very, very seriously. So they had like an actual team. We had just a bunch of ragtag Marines. And my commanding officer at the time knew I played in college, knew I played Division 1 for Navy soccer and said, would you play? And I said, “Sure, I haven’t played in in many years, but I can try”. And we went out there and I was the only woman on the field. The stadium was filled with all men in the bleachers, and it was probably two or three times the number of people I had ever played in front of, in my entire career.
And so, initially the commander of the Egyptian forces wanted me to play in long pants because I was a woman. And my commanding officer to his credit said, no, she's going to play on with green on green, which is just green shorts and a green shirt like everybody else. And I did, and I was by no means the best player on that field, but I could hold my own. I was a Division 1 soccer player in college. And at that point in my 20s, I was in pretty good shape. And at one point I went up for a header with the commander of their unit there. And he felt down to the ground and I stayed on my feet and the entire crowd just lit up, just roared.
And at the end of that, we lost like seven to one or something. These guys were really good, but the general for the Egyptian Air Force who was there watching walked down the line of all the players and handed me the MVP plaque and the crowd roared again. And I was just like, wow, this is really cool because I really felt like I was changing minds there. They had never seen a woman compete against men on the soccer field or in the cockpit and there I was, 26 years old or something. And it was an incredible experience.
And frankly, that's what I loved about the Marine Corps. I really loved that. When people say to me, would you recommend my daughter go into the Marine Corps? It's such a hard service and that's right. And there are some faults with it obviously, but what I loved about the Marine Corps is at the end of the day, performance really mattered more than anything. Yes, you had to prove yourself. Yes, as a woman, maybe it was harder initially because everybody's sort of skeptical and it's such a male dominated environment, but you know what, at the end of the day you know what mattered, did the bombs hit the target on time? Could you refuel? Could you land on the back of an aircraft carrier when you were needed to? And that is what people cared about at the end of the day. Nothing else.
When you're going through TBS, The Basic School, it's not an easy school in Quantico. It's six months long. When you're going through it, they call it "the big suck." But, it's not a fun time. But it gives you a real appreciation for being on the ground. Although I never trained as an infantry officer, I was a basic rifle platoon commander. That's what they train you to do. It's not something you can learn in a book. You have to do it. You have to go out and understand terrain by walking it, by seeing it, by knowing, You have to understand what it's like to not have radio communications. To have the friction and "fog of war" as they say. You can't recreate it completely in training, but you can get a pretty good sense of what those things are like.
So, being able to talk that talk and understand it, I think when I went into the cockpit to have a sense of what it's like on the ground, was so important. Also, who you're talking to on the ground in the Marine Corps, we sent forward air controllers, who are aviators on their second tour, down to be the communicators to the pilots up in the air because they're the ones who understand what it's like to be in the cockpit. That we also can't see it all. We might be 20,000 feet above, but you've got to talk big to small. For example, when you're talking about where you're at, and trying to talk a pilot on. We can't focus on just one thing at any time. We're constantly juggling a lot of balls. We're constantly listening to different radios. So, you have to be succinct. We don't have time to mess around with chit-chat. So, all of these things are very helpful, and to have that training is super important. Then, also, you know the people on the ground. You may not know them personally, but the Marine Corps is such a small service that you probably know of somebody, and that makes it really personal.
I'll never forget, one of the convoys that I did close air support in the first few days of the Iraq War, so when the Marines were still pushing North, and they had battles like Nazaria, and places like that, on the ground was a Marine loadistition officer, who was my teammate at the Naval Academy. She was a soccer teammate of mine, Corey Thornton. I didn't know this at the time when I was doing the mission, but later on, I found out that she was one of the leaders of this convoy going up that I supported.
You think about that and you're like, "These are my peeps, man!" I trained with them, they're my friends, and you never know when your actions above are going to directly help them. That's what it's all about. That's what Marine Aviation's all about, and that's why I loved it.
So, in my first tour in Afghanistan, my first combat mission was actually the first combat mission for the squadron itself. That was not because I was a senior aviator, or I had the most qualifications, or anything like that. It was simply a matter of the people that were assigned to do the first missions for the squadron were all of the senior ones, pilots, and wizzos, and we had really bad weather that first 24-hour period. And they couldn't launch. So, they ran out of what's called "crew day." The B team, which I was one, came in 20 hours later, and we had had enough sleep, to when the clouds broke, and when the weather broke, and we were able to do our first mission, we were the ones that took it. So, that's how I became in the cockpit of the first mission for the Green Knights going into Afghanistan in 2002.
After that mission, it was about seven or eight hours long and everybody was very interested in the debrief, so we talked about that. One of my fellow aviators came up to me and said, "Hey, I think Skipper just said you're the first woman in the Marine Corps to have ever flown a combat mission in an F-18." I was thinking, "Oh, great. Okay. I hope I'm not the last." It didn't really hit me that hard because I had so much work to do as a weapons system officer, as a pilot, you not only fly missions, but you have a ground job. So when you get done with these eight-hour missions, you had other work to do. I was more focused on that, frankly. So, I didn't think about it too much at the time.
I knew that I had bad eyes, so that the back seat was always an option, but that we were changing, and that the military was starting to allow LASIK and PRK for certain people. So, I wanted to be a part of that. I was like, "Well, I've done these great things in the back seat, and I've been at the pinnacle of what you could do as a back-seater." As both my combat tours, I had achieved what I had set out to achieve. I had all the quals in the book. I was an air combat and tactics instructor. I was a graduate of MDTC, which is the Marine Core Division Tactics Course, which is like the Marine Corps' version of Top Gun. I had done it all. I wanted a challenge. I wanted even more of a challenge.
I remember the generals and the colonels saying, "Well, you're really going to hurt your career if you do this. You're very well respected, and you have all these quals here. You're going to drop down to the bottom of the totem pole again. Do you really want that?" I took a step back, and realized, yeah, I really do. Because the goal was never to become a general officer. It wasn't even squadron command. It was, I wanted to fly in combat and I wanted to be a front-seater if I could, and fly this machine. If that meant that I was going to not be promoted, or something, that to me, was secondary.
So, I got my eyes fixed. I put in a package. I did not make it the first year. I was rejected, which is another lesson. I just stayed at it. Then, I reapplied the next year, and I got it, and was thrilled to be able to become a lowly flight student again. That's what I did. I went back to flight school. I was an O-3, a captain. All of my flight instructors were also O-3's so, I was the same rank as all of the instructors. I had more combat than almost all of my flight instructors. But, I got through the training and had to swallow my pride at times, and make it through that training again. It was fun.
When I finished flight school as a front-seater, I then had to go back to the fleet replacement squadron, a different one this time. I went through Oceana, the Navy's version of the F-18 fleet replacement squadron. There were three at the time, one at Lemoore, one at Miramar, and one in Oceana, Virginia.
So, I got assigned to Oceana, and I did a year there. And I learned how to fly the front seat of an F-18., and also, I learned how to carrier-claw, which was something I didn't do as a back-seater, and had never done, because we didn't go out on carriers. The two-seat version of the F-18 did not do that in the Marine Corps. So, this was all new. I was now doing single cockpit operations, where I was the only one in the cockpit. I didn't have a wizzo. And to go through carrier training was tough, but I loved it, and made it through, and lots of stories there.
Then, from there, I went back to Miramar, Marine Corps Air Station, reassigned to third Marine Aircraft Wing in MAG-11. And was reassigned back to Fighter TAC Squadron 121. So, which was my old squadron. All new people, of course, but I didn't have to buy a new patch. So, that was good. Went back there, and we deployed to Japan. We did a Far East called a UDP deployment out there, Australia, Guam. We also did lots of exercises in Nevada and Alaska and all up and down the West Coast. So, in my tour as a front-seater, I did not deploy in the cockpit to the Middle East out of the cockpit.
But, I did deploy to Afghanistan again, this time as a F-18 planner. So, as a fix-wing fighter planner on the ground. So, my job there was really to translate operations and what fighter assets could do for the Marines on the ground. So I went all around Helmand Province with the folks on the ground planning for their future operations. That was also quite an experience.
I always tell people, Afghanistan is not a black and white country. It's not a black and white war, or conflict we'd been in the last 20 years. People in America tend to think of war as "we're the good guys, and we're going to fight the bad guys." That's kind of the way we think as Americans, and when you go over to Afghanistan, you realize that there really are no good guys, and there are no bad guys, or very few of both. Most people, most people in Afghanistan are survivors. They will be with you if it helps them survive, and their families survive. And they will be against you if it helps them and their family survive. It's not personal. They're not ideologically against America, or democracy, or any of that stuff. It is all about survival. You learn that pretty quickly when you go over there.
I was a board member for what's called the Detainee Review Board, and I was sent from Helmand Province up to Parwan Province, which is in the Northeast area, North of Kabul. What the idea here is, is there's these detainees, or prisoners, that the Americans take off the battlefield, and we detail them. We put them in jail, essentially. Some of them had been there for years. Each one of them, at one point, will get a review. Who are these people? Why are they still in jail? Are they still a threat to American forces? Should we release them or not? This board consisted of three American military officers, not lawyers, but operators, like myself. The other two gentlemen on the board were Army officers, and then they had me. I think I was the first woman that had ever been on a Detainee Review Board, as well.
They cycle them in. New boards every month. So, I did a month there in Parwan, and I saw probably 85 or so detainees. We probably did four a day. Where you review their case, all the evidence against them, how they were caught, what they were doing. And you get to talk with them, and you ask them questions. And, they can have witnesses that can support them, or tell us who they are, and whether they should be released or not. And, you really get to see just the complexity of the conflict when you talk to these people. Some of these guys, and they were all men, some of them are really bad. Some of them were folks who could speak several languages, and they clearly were a threat. If we released them, they would go out and start plotting against us the moment they got out. So, some of them were pretty cut-and-dry cases. But not many.
The majority were very hard to determine. I always talk about this one case where there's a young man, he was, by the time we had seen him, was probably 16 or 17 years old, but he had been in the jail, in the prison, for three or four years at this point. So, when he was caught, he was like 12. He was caught because we had identified his finger prints on tape that was on an IED that was put underneath a bridge. Of course, the Afghan boy doesn't understand finger prints. He doesn't know anything about that. Can't read or write. You start to pull the string on this kid, and he had lost his parents. He had no family. And he had three sheep, or three goats, or something. Somebody came up to him, and basically said, "I'm going to give you X amount of money, where you can buy three more goats and a wife," because you've got to buy your wife there. "And you can start a new life if you just put this device under that bridge over there." So, he took that, and he said, "I can do that." And he did. And we caught him, and we nabbed him, and we threw him in jail.
And you can say to yourself, "Well, yes, he did something very bad." Of course, he knew that that IED was going to kill people and all that. He knew what it was for. Yeah. He also wanted to start a life. So, he wasn't ideologically motivated. He didn't hate America. This is a story that you see over and over again in Afghanistan. It's just an example of, Do we keep this guy in jail for another five years? Is that the right answer? Do we release him? Would it matter to you if that IED had blown up? Would it matter to you if that IED had killed Americans? Do we keep him in jail for another 10 years, if it had? How about if it killed Afghans? How about if it didn't blow up? We can't keep him in jail forever.
But it just shows you the complexities of how the people think there, and what their reasoning is for their actions. You can, I could have a number of examples of people growing poppies for example, for their family. The culture there is a culture of where if somebody comes to your door, you don't turn them away. So, a lot of times, people and families that will take in the Taliban, for example. They do it because that's their culture. They're not necessarily doing it because they're with the Taliban, and want to hurt Americans. But, yet, they get caught in the cross-fire. So, it's just so difficult, and such a hard, complex area.
When I think about the pull-out, I can't fault the current President for making the decision to pull out. I lost a colleague in my second tour in Afghanistan, somebody I had worked with every day for four or five months right alongside, he never came home from a H-1 Helicopter mission one day. He was shot down. I couldn't tell you why he died. That was a big part of me feeling like, "What are we doing here? Are we helping? Why does Sugar Bear have to die? What is the goal here? We're not going to change this culture." So, I can't fault the current President, I just feel like we have to do it in a responsible way. We have to protect the translators and those people that we promised we would protect, for them putting their lives, and their families' lives at risk for us, knowingly doing that. We have an obligation to protect them and to help them.
But, I have mixed feelings. Probably like many veterans about the pull-out. I want Afghanistan to succeed. I want the women there to have rights, and the girls there to go to school. But, at the same time, I don't know how long we should be there. And is it really an American interest?
That was Lt. Colonel Amy Grath.
To learn more about Amy, check out her memoir, Honor Bound: An American Story of Dreams and Service.
You can also find Amy on Twitter at @AmyMcGrathKY
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Warriors In Their Own Words.