Jet Girl

November 07, 2019
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Have you read the book about the boy who packs his bags and heads off to war? It's a memoir, usually, a coming-of-age story about a kid from Anywhere, USA, someone willing to point his navigational beacon toward danger, then walk that thin, straight line through all the darkness and doubt he finds along his way.  He'll have to face down some monsters. He'll have to look deep inside himself, too. But, no matter the odds he's up against, with only his inner strength to rely upon, our young hero will discover that he has what it takes to prevail, to accomplish the mission. By the time he reaches the end of the trail, that boy will have become a man, and he'll return to society a bit tired and weary because of his journey, but all the wiser for it.

This is a type of "Golden Fleece" narrative. The adventurer who leaves home in search of some treasure or prize to bring back to society, finding that he himself has changed along the way. For the post-9/11 generation, this is a uniquely military story, one that might be called a "soldier's education," or even a "story of courage, leadership, and brotherhood." And who's to say it's not one man's account of the "making of a Marine officer." 

It is, predominantly, a man's military story. Until now.

With the release of her memoir JET GIRL, former F-18 flight officer Caroline Johnson has offered up her own account of coming-of-age in the United States military, while also giving the reader an intimate and behind-the-scenes tour of the world's deadliest aircraft. Her story starts at home in Colorado, and it picks up steam during the author's four years at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. But it's not until Johnson graduates from Annapolis and receives her commission in the U.S. Navy that her story really, well, takes off.

From flight school check rides to bridal showers, from campfires in Michigan to combat missions over Iraq, Johnson invites the reader to get up close and personal, to ride along for every mile she traveled, for every relationship made and broken, for every trial and triumph during a decade-long aviation career. 

The result is sometimes thrilling but always interesting.

Of course, this book could have been called a "sailor's education" or the "making of a Naval officer," and it's nothing if not a story of courage and leadership. Most of all, though, it's Caroline's story. Below is a barely edited transcript of my conversation with the author.

Describe the woman you write about in the book.

Uniquely Caroline. This is a coming of age story. It's about someone who starts out as young and naïve and develops into a stronger woman of depth and empathy, and hopefully character, too. I encountered things I was never aware of, and I had to go into difficult places to discover who I was.

You have written a memoir before reaching mid-life. Is it difficult to start over?

Very difficult. I had no idea how challenging the transition would be. I've worked in a few different places, and I've been really fortunate with opportunities, but it's hard to establish a new career after having what felt like success in a prior career. You have to keep convincing people of your value on the outside.

The book is very personal. Did you feel that you were putting your diary out into the world?

Well, I've never kept a diary in my life! I probably should have to reflect on things more, but it's just something I've never done. I kept a calendar on deployment, and I wrote important or memorable things into that calendar. I used the calendar and my flight logs to re-build the timeline and chronology. My co-author, Hof, is brilliant and very observant of other people. He's a great conversationalist. I did not even know Hof before we worked together, but he was able to talk to me about my experiences at the Academy and in the Fleet in order to draw out my story. I was scared to share my life and failings with someone! But, in the end, I realized that it was important to say everything and to say it with honesty. I hope that comes across in the book.

On the subject of convincing people of your value, how do you respond when someone asks: "You were in the military? What did you do?"

I tell them that I flew F-18s. I tell them that I was a back-seater, meaning that I was Goose (from the movie "Top Gun"), but I didn't die. I targeted the missiles, bombs, and weapons, and I controlled the tactical equipment and communications in the jet.

Let's talk about your tour in Iraq. Why did you want to be the first woman to drop bombs on ISIS.

Simple: that's just how a warfighter thinks. I wanted to be in the action. I wanted to do my job, and I had been training for it for years, so I knew I was ready when called.

You write a lot about preparing yourself for the mission in Iraq, preparing to target and kill the enemy from your F-18.  In one passage, you wrote how you "visualized life on the ground along Highway 1 in Iraq." You actually pictured yourself on the ground. Why was it important to do this?

I needed to understand humanity and the devastating effects of my weapon. This is not a video game. Killing from a distance is hypothetically the easiest way to kill, as we hear so often, but I needed to visualize myself on the ground in order to process the brutal and real after-effects. My unit sat in Iraq for 72 days before we could drop ordnance. We sat on the "sidelines" for a long time. We watched ISIS take lives. So, when authority came down for me to drop bombs, I knew that I would be saving innocent lives on the ground.

I ended up flying 42 flights in combat, and I only employed my weapons on one of those flights, and the Secretary of Defense authorized my mission, so there was plenty of review and scrutiny before I was cleared to engage. Later, that changed. After 2014, the authority to drop ordnance got pushed down far below the Secretary of Defense, all the way down to our soldiers on the ground called JTACs, and they were authorizing larger swaths and more targets as hostile. As a result, the pilots dropped more ordnance on moving targets, such as vehicles and groups of foot-mobile enemy fighters. I heard from some of the pilots that they preferred targeting and destroying infrastructure, such as buildings, oil refineries, roads, and other hard structures because they convinced themselves that they were not actually killing human beings. Some pilots were reluctant to target the things that moved.

I believe this is moral injury, which I understand to mean someone believing he or she failed to live up to his or her own expectations of honorable performance in combat. Those pilots had regret. Those pilots questioned the actions that they took in combat, and I expect us to see more of it. 

Of course, the book answers this question with greater detail and sensitivity, but what was it like to be a woman in a fighter jet community?

There were very few women in the fighter community, only twelve of us in Oceana, Virginia, where I was stationed. Beginning in flight school, the women instructors were always reaching down to mentor us and teach us. I became a friend of the instructors very quickly because all these women took me under their wing, and, luckily, I ended up with many friends who were older women pilots. We were a close-knit group. 

What about your service gives you the most pride.

Leaving the F-18 community and going back to the Naval Academy. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Teaching at the Academy was my crowning achievement, getting to know the students and passing along my experiences. As a matter of fact, I just got a call from one of my former students, and it's the greatest feeling! This kid is doing so well out in the Fleet, in flight school, surpassing the expectations he had for himself. I am so proud of my students and what they are choosing to do.

What about your service do you regret.

That I did not have the social and emotional maturity to get the help when I needed it when I was really floundering. For a period of time, I looked at myself as a failure for departing from the golden career path of a naval aviator, for leaving the fighter jet community. I wish I were still flying, and I often regret being on the outside of the action, but that departure took too great a toll on me at the moment.

Former Senator Jim Webb, Annapolis Class of 1968, once wrote of Bancroft Hall, the dormitory where all 4,000 or so Naval Academy Midshipmen live, as a "horny woman's dream." What do you think of that statement?

Things like that are really hard to hear. It is shameful that things like this are ever said. My class was 14.7 percent of women. We were a super-minority. This was a drastically different composition than what people grew up with, but it was sort of normal for me because I grew up with a brother and male cousins. The Academy and the military is a great equalizer. The military takes people from all backgrounds, genders, geographic locations, and these things should not matter. The organization, the military, relies on everyone's contribution.

But you cannot deny that eighteen-year-old people will have feelings for one another, especially when everything is blended together the way it is at the Academy, and inside the military, too. Our beds were stacked above our desks at the Academy -- everything was, and is, thrown together! You live with the same people you train with, who are the same people you study with, who end up being the same people that you deploy to combat alongside. But therein lies the challenge that every young officer-in-training should confront: you must learn to be professional at all times, especially when you are living and working in extremely close quarters with people, and spending all your time together. You, the Midshipman, still must find a way to keep your personal life separate from your work life, even when it is stressful. Once we graduate as military officers, we are essentially white-collar professionals making very consequential decisions. And, when the day is over, oftentimes we cannot go home and separate ourselves, we cannot get physical space between our personal and our professional lives. And that's the real opportunity of Bancroft Hall. Because everyone is crammed together in a high-pressure living environment at a young and impressionable age, the Academy is training its people to figure out ways to behave as professionals before they go off and do it for real.

That's an interesting answer. On the same subject, do you believe the military fosters sexist behavior?

The military does not foster abusive behavior or attitudes. There are bad apples everywhere. Groupthink and mob mentality do influence the way people behave. In my book, I discuss an incident of abusive behavior that I witnessed as a Midshipman. The two men I talk about were ringleaders of something atrocious, but they were also victims of groupthink and mob mentality. You suffer in the military, especially if you are in the "out" group, and that happened to me after that experience.

I want to touch very briefly on the relationships among women. Specifically, between Navy wives and Navy women. There was some tension between the women aviators and the wives of male aviators. What can you say on that subject?

Navy women are sometimes looked at as threats. I felt that the wives of men we served with would look at us and think: "You are trying to sleep with my husband." That's how we felt perceived. In our opinion, the men did not really care about us like that; we were simply their co-workers. From the outside, I imagine a wife looked at us and figured we were single, young, unattached, and living our dreams. Of course, the truth was much less glamorous. I was doing everything on my own, and there was a great deal of loneliness. My house, my dating life, trying to re-start all of it after deployments and training, trying to pick up where I'd left things before packing my bags and taking off wherever. There was a lot of loneliness during those days. To feel attacked by other women was very hard on top of everything else.

When I showed up at the squadron party, a story I tell in the book, I was wearing Frye boots, jeans, and a plain cardigan sweater, nothing fancy at all. I'd come from a football game. I was just a "basic girl of fall!" I was dressed the same as the wives, and, as soon as I walked in the door, they immediately assumed I was a wife. When I said I was actually an aviator, it was very difficult for them to welcome me in the same way. I was one of the aviators, but never one of the boys, nor was I one of the girls, either. 

I was "safe" when I had a boyfriend during flight school. My boyfriend signaled to the wives that I was not looking for someone, I suppose, but as soon as I was single again, I was perceived as a threat by some of my peers' wives. I eventually empathized with them. They had so much to worry about, i.e., their husbands were in harm's way, and they're also alone, taking care of the kids and trying to run a household while he's off somewhere strange. It's cliché, but the military life is hard on everyone.

Who do you hope reads this book?

This process is so interesting. Originally, the publisher thought, "this is a military book." But it's not. It is a military book, a coming-of-age book, and much more. People will say to me, "I'm going to buy it for my daughter," or they say, "I'm going buy it for my wife." Do that! But also read it yourself. You will learn so many things that have nothing to do with the military or F-18s or the Naval Academy. My dad is a pilot, and he's in a men's-only aviation club called the "the Quiet Birdmen club," and he was surprised by how much he learned reading this book. There was a time when my brother, who is in the Navy, wanted me to continue flying and couldn't understand my reasons for getting out. After reading my book, though, I think he's come to understand me better and to understand why I made the decision to leave. I hope it reaches a broad audience.  

John Waters is a contributor to RealClearDefense and a former U.S. Marine who served tours in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. John is currently an attorney with the Fraser Stryker law firm in Omaha, Nebraska.

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