She’s Got Grit: Living her own courage from the F/A-18 to a bid for Congress

Amy McGrath had just retired from the Marines when I caught up with her on her way to Kentucky. She’s headed back home with her family, and she’s not taking any time off. On August 2nd, McGrath announced that she is running for Congress in 2018.

Once you hear her story, it’s not a surprise that she doesn’t slow down. As a young Kentucky girl, the youngest of three children born to a father who taught high school history and a mother who was one of the first women to graduate medical school from the University of Kentucky, McGrath fell in love early on. The military was not part of her family history, but she had learned plenty of grit from her mother, who, after working as a pediatrician for a number of years found herself unable to walk when symptoms of childhood polio returned. Knowing she would not be able to continue her career as a pediatrician without being on her feet, when Amy was a young teenager, McGrath’s mother did a second residency to become a psychiatrist. That example of extreme determination and adaptability made a deep impact on McGrath.

Her participation in sports did, too.

“When I was just a little kid, I played sports with all the neighborhood kids,” she remembers. “I had an older brother, and he always pushed me, and I was better at most sports than most of his friends. So we’d all get together and the older kids would pick teams and he would pick me first. His friends would make fun of him — “what are you doing, picking a girl?” And he’d shoot back that he was picking the best player. I was just 7 or 8 years old, but I took that with me. If some guy said I couldn’t do something, I’d say why not?”

Pushing the boundaries as a child

Then McGrath learned about flying.

“I saw a History channel documentary about aviation,” she remembers, “and I remember it saying that anyone could be a pilot, but only the best could be Naval aviators.” That was right around the time the movie Top Gun came out, but she isn’t a fan: “there weren’t any women pilots!”

McGrath went to her mother and told her that she wanted to fly jets. Wondering why there were no women flying, she discovered there was a federal law prohibiting women from serving in combat roles. She remembers exclaiming to her mother: “They just haven’t met me yet!”

She began writing letters. At age 13, she wrote to her member of Congress, who wrote her back, saying “women ought to be protected and not allowed to serve in combat.”

“I still have that letter,” she says wryly.

The young McGrath kept writing. She began a letter writing campaign to all of the local newspapers. She wrote every single member of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Several wrote her back, including Representative Pat Schroeder, who wrote “The Army sets lower recruiting standards for men than for women…I think that it is time that the military to be based on qualifications, not gender.” Representative Jim Bunning wrote back explaining the initiation of combat exclusion following WWII not “because women were perceived to be inferior to men, but were perceived as precious commodity that deserved protection…it’s very difficult to change attitudes that have been held, virtually, since the beginning of time…hopefully it will be changed.”

Her senior year of high school, where she played varsity basketball, soccer and softball, the combat exclusion clause was lifted and McGrath entered the Naval Academy in the class of 1997.

“The Academy was everything I wanted it to be,” she says. “I wanted a challenge. I played varsity soccer there, so I had this team of women, a small sorority in a sea of men.”

Two years in, she wanted more.

“I’d figured out the system. I wanted more challenge. The Marines were the best. I remember the different parts of the Navy recruiting in Smoke Hall and the Marines stood in the corner with their arms crossed. You went up to them, they didn’t reach out to you, and when you walked up to them they’d look at you like “are you good enough?”

“I wanted to fly,” McGrath says. “It was the only Marine position open to women to be in combat and I really bought into that. I knew there were guys at the Academy who didn’t think I should be there because I was taking a slot from someone who was going to be a warfighter. I wanted to be a warfighter.”

Amy McGrath

She graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in political science and headed to The Basic School (TBS) where she “rolled around in the mud for six months.” It wasn’t all easy.

Learning from failure

“I failed night land nav,” McGrath says. “I didn’t find the mailbox in the woods. I ended up at the FBI Academy, which was not the target. I had to do remediation training on the weekends, and it was really embarrassing. But I learned from it. I had screwed it up. Years later I was at SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) and I was the only one who could navigate at night, so I was able to use that lesson.”

TBS gave her another example to show what she was made of, too.

“I was assigned as squad leader for a couple of weeks,” she remembers. “We all were — it was a rotation. And the guy that had been squad leader before was now a regular rifleman. He was a complainer — he complained all the time, and I couldn’t stand it. Then I was in charge, being evaluated for leadership, and I had this guy complaining. He complained about my assigning him to carry the squad automatic weapon (the SAW) and I just snapped. Right there in front of everyone, I said “You know what? You take my M16 (a lighter weapon) and I’ll carry the SAW.”

Squad leaders don’t carry SAWs, because the SAW is heavier and the squad leader has to be able to manage multiple tasks at a given time.

“He pushed back, and I ordered him to take the M16.” McGrath says. “I took the SAW. The other guys in the squad — their jaws just dropped. Somehow out of that I got the reputation for not taking any shit.”

That experience led McGrath to an important understanding in leadership.

“As a leader you have to be able to take on the burden, she says. People will fall in line once they see that you’re ready to walk the walk.”

Then she headed to flight school. Because she didn’t have perfect vision, she started out as a backseater in the F/A-18 Hornet. I did targeting, weapons, communications and navigation,” she says.

Early integration challenges

The F/A-18 Hornet is the most versatile aircraft in the military, combining the agility of a fighter with the lethality of a bomber. This twin-engine supersonic all-weather and aircraft-carrier capable aircraft is considered the backbone of the carrier squadron. The 38 million dollar aircraft is the smallest aircraft on the aircraft carrier. There are just over 1,000 active F/A-18 aviators, and only single digit numbers of women in the cockpits.

When McGrath arrived at her first Hornet training squadron, they weren’t ready for her. Her commander delayed her flight training for six months, waiting for another woman pilot to arrive.

“It was the worst thing they would have done,” she said. “The commanding officer was trying to do the right thing, but I hadn’t got to that place by having another woman buddy. I watched all my friends move forward with their training and I had to just sit there.”

Amy McGrath gets ready for a flight

“I never had problems with my Marine peers,” she says. “I’m not sure why. Maybe because we went to TBS together, and I’d been out there in the cold and the rain with them, I’d carried that squad automatic weapon the last five miles one might, I don’t know. The Air Force and Navy gals got a lot more shit. It’s why I’m a huge proponent of integrated training.”

She does remember that the pilots already assigned to the squadron “thought the world was going to end when I got there. But four to five months in, it wasn’t a big deal.”

Still, it wasn’t easy. “The biggest jerks were a couple of the old guys who ran the simulator, but I didn’t worry about them. And there were assholes, but those guys were assholes to everyone and nobody liked them,” she says. “It was a locker room culture. If you weren’t ok with that, it would suck for you. We did aircrew training every Thursday, and every other Powerpoint slide my first tour was porn. That was the culture and the guys didn’t want to change it. Was that right? If I’d made a stink, I probably would have been drummed out. You have to pick your battles. I was harassed and I didn’t have the ability to stand up for myself.”

With all that, McGrath thinks that the culture is changing.

”As women rise, people don’t do that shit any more,” she says. “You don’t need that kind of crap. The bombs still hit the target without porn. Some of that culture takes time to change, women in positions of power and men who come up who have worked with them along the way.”

She also is quick to add that “The bad stuff was maybe 3% of my experience. 97% of the time it was awesome. The guys were awesome and took me under their wings and taught me to be aggressive in the air. I had a wonderful experience. I have absolutely loved it. I feel honored and proud to be surrounded by professional patriots.”

McGrath prepares for a flight

Going to war

Then the Twin Towers fell.

McGrath remembers being one of the most junior officers at her squadron on Mirimar that September morning when her sister called. It was 6:30 on the west coast.

“Turn the TV on,” her sister said. McGrath did, and watched briefly, captivated by the horror gripping the rest of the nation, when the phone rang again. It was the squadron, and she was ordered to report immediately. She lived nearby and was at the hangar in minutes.

“But the base went into confusion,” she remembers. “The police locked the base down. So most of the pilots, who lived off base, couldn’t get on.”

McGrath was one of a small group who made it to the hangar before the lock down.

“My XO was looking at us, and I know he must have been thinking: I’m gonna have to put McGrath in a cockpit,” she says. “The Air National Guard wasn’t as prepared as they probably are today, and we knew at Miramar we were the defense for the West Coast cities like Los Angeles. We suited up, the planes were loaded with AIM-120 AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air to air missile) and AIM-9 (air intercept missile) Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and we sat on the tarmac ready to launch with one engine running to save fuel. Our mission was to shoot down any airliner that didn’t comply with instructions from Air Traffic Control.

I sat in that cockpit for almost four hours, hoping the airliners would do what they were told to do so that I wouldn’t have to do what I was told to do. After almost four hours we were all relieved, which just meant another pilot came and sat in the cockpit waiting for the call.”

That year, McGrath deployed to Krygyzstan to fly missions in Afghanistan.

“We landed and we built ourselves an airfield the way Marines do,” she says. Because of weather, the pilots sat around for days before the first mission, and heated arguments started about whether women should by flying in combat. Despite having been trained with her unit, McGrath and the one other woman aviator had not, some pilots believed, yet proven themselves. In March, McGrath made her first of many flights, becoming the first woman Marine to fly in an F/A-18 in combat. That year she flew Close Air Support (CAS) for Marines and Coalition forces. The next year she deployed again, this time to Iraq. “We were flying out of Al Jaber for Operation Southern Watch before the war kicked off,” she says. “We flew 2–3 missions a day, and we never landed with ordnance.”

She usually flew high since “at the time the biggest threat were shoulder mounted surface-to-air missiles (SAMs),” she says, “but sometimes we’d get called because there were people surrounding a unit and they wanted to scare them. Then we’d get the call to fly low and make some noise.”

Bringing it all together

In Iraq, a change of mission brought everything together for McGrath: the flying, the camaraderie, the mission, the challenge.

We were in Iraq, and got called up to do a regular bombing run,” McGrath says. “We had two GPS JDAM bombs on board. Halfway through the mission we were called off to assist troops in contact.”

McGrath’s plane and wingman were redirected to An Nasariyah.

“We had one bomb left and not much fuel,” she says. “The forward air controller (FAC) was trying to talk to us but kept cutting out because he was taking fire. He needed us to take out a building where insurgents were firing on our Marines.

“My wingman shot first, but the bomb skipped off the side of the building,” she says. “So there’s just one bomb left on our plane. I took thirty seconds to make corrections to the target based on what the FAC said, and then dropped the bomb.

It takes thirty seconds to fall from 25,000 feet, and those were some of the longest thirty seconds of my life. I couldn’t hear anything, and all I could think was oh shit, oh shit.

A few seconds later I heard the FAC say “that’s a shack, building’s gone.”

“We had to get back to Al Jaber since we were out of fuel,” she says.

When you’re flying F/A-18s, you don’t get to meet the ground guys, she says. “But I was working in the MAL when this guy comes up to me in dirty cammies and says he’s from An Nasariyah.”

McGrath turned around, and shook his hand.

“He’d brought two ice cold cokes,” she said, “which were the most prized possession over there. So we cracked open the cokes, and talked about the mission. It turned out we’d been at the Naval Academy at the same time, and we talked about the Academy, the mission here, the trust you build up.”

After her second deployment, the press covered McGrath’s performance as one of the only women flying the F/A-18. “By then the guys were really confused,” she says. “They didn’t understand what the big deal was.”

On return to the states, McGrath was offered a slot as an Air Combat Tactics Instructor (ACTI) which she completed, and then given the opportunity to attend the Marine Corps Division Tactics Course (MDTC), an air-to-air tactics course that was the Marine version of Top Gun. She was the first woman to complete the training.

McGrath and her mother, source of strength and inspiration

Newly qualified and with 89 combat missions under her belt, she asked the Navy to fix her eyes. They did, and she went back to flight school as a front-seater. She met her husband at flight school that next time around.

Never done learning

Now McGrath was both front and back seat qualified in the F/A-18 Hornet. She went back to the RAG (training squadron), where she began training for her aircraft carrier qualifications.

“Landing on the back of the boat isn’t a gender specific task,” she says. “I’ll never forget when the landing signal officer said — ‘you’re ready to go.’ That’s when you have to bear down on your training and execute.”

McGrath served around the world, including a tour back to Afghanistan where she was deployed with her husband. She was picked up to be a Congressional fellow, spent two years in the Pentagon as the USMC liaison to the State Department and USAID, and finished her Masters in International Security while pregnant with her first child.

“I remember distinctly at the end of that tour being told, ok, you’ve had your kid, time to go back to the cockpit.”

But McGrath and her husband wanted to have more children, and despite warnings of what she was doing to her career, she headed to Annapolis to teach. She retired after three years and adding two more children to her family.

Advice to new leaders

What would she tell new leaders starting out after her twenty year career?

“There’s never a break,” she says “There’s never a time when you can say: I’ve graduated, and now I can relax. There is no substitute for hard work. It’s ok — you can do it — but there is no break. To perform and do well, you’re going to have to work your ass off.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says, and “do the harder shit. You’ll be better for it. You don’t have confidence until you do the hard things. I get scared when I’m around people who haven’t failed.”

“If you walk into a room with a MDTC patch on your left shoulder, you know that hey, I’ve got this on my uniform for a reason. I earned this. This is a challenge, but I can do this.

If you want something so badly, you work your ass off to get it. You’ll be surprised at the amount of respect you’ll get, and help if you need it, once you commit. I’m not lucky. I worked my ass off.”

McGrath and her family

It’s no surprise that McGrath isn’t slowing down, and is still following that same sense of purpose.

“After the elections last year I was so sad and embarrassed for my country,” she said. Her political involvement from a very young age which had continued throughout her career pointed her in the direction she knew she needed to go. She will run as the Democratic candidate in the 2018 election for Congress to represent the state of Kentucky.

“I’m scared shitless,” she says. “Politics right now is ugly. I know some of what lies ahead. But I’ve got to live my own courage. I have to do the right thing.”

*Update. McGrath has announced her candidacy. See her campaign video HERE.

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