Rep. Martha McSally: U.S. Congresswoman, Retired Air Force Colonel, Combat Fighter Pilot and Gender Equality Advocate

by Jess Clackum

Congresswoman McSally represents the 2nd Congressional District in Arizona and serves on the House Armed Services Committee and Homeland Security and as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications.

McSally, who served 26 years in the U.S. Air Force and retired as a full Colonel in 2010, is the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and first to command a fighter squadron in combat in the U.S. Armed Forces.  

The youngest of five children, McSally lost her father when she was just 12 years old. Before he died he’d told her to make him proud. His Navy service inspired her to enlist in the Air Force Academy with dreams of becoming a doctor but her plans were altered.

“It wasn’t until I got to the Academy that I became very motivated to become a fighter pilot, quite frankly because they told me that I couldn’t. I’m going through the same training as everybody else, but if I were to then go onto pilot training, just because I’m a woman, I wasn’t able to be a fighter pilot. I just thought that was crap.”

(photo credits mcsally.gov and ozy.com)

And so the woman who had suffered from motion sickness as a child and lost her beloved father at a young age would grow up to make history by becoming America's first woman to command a fighter squadron in combat and first to command a combat aviation unit.  

“I grew up with the values of hard work and service since my dad had served in the Navy before I was born,” she says. “As I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I was looking for an option to get a good education. I really stumbled into the military.”

A distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy, McSally earned her Master’s degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government before proceeding to pilot training. She was first in her class at the Air War College, the senior professional military education school of the United States Air Force. Later, she was selected for the prestigious Legislative Fellowship program an advised Arizona Senator John Kyl on defense and foreign affairs policy.

Following the Fellowship appointment, she was assigned to Saudi Arabia to oversee combat search and rescue operations over southern Iraq and Afghanistan. She was on the leadership team that planned and executed the initial air campaign in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, eventually leading to her appointment as Flight Commander and Director of Operations in the 612 Combat Operations Squadron at 12th Air Force Headquarters at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. While deployed in the Middle East, she served in leadership positions in the Combined Air Operations Center for Operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, and then Iraqi Freedom. As commander of the 354th Fighter Squadron she was responsible for ensuring her squadron deployed anywhere in the world in 24 hours’ notice.

McSally flew nearly 325 combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, logged 2,600 flight hour and earned 6 air medals during her career.

Martha McSally was never one to take no for an answer. In 2002, as a Lt Col, she filed suit in federal court challenging the longstanding US/UK policy that military servicewomen “cover up” while traveling off base in Saudi Arabia.  McSally told CBS News Correspondent Lesley Stahl in an interview on 60 Minutes, “I have to sit in the back and at all times I must be escorted by a male ... [who], when questioned, is supposed to claim me as his wife," she said. "I can fly a single-seat aircraft in enemy territory, but I can't drive a vehicle. They turned me into a fighter pilot. This is who I am. When I see something messed up, I'm going to challenge it."

The policy was eventually changed.

McSally is a relentless fighter on behalf of equality for women.

"You want to talk about a war on women? Walk in my shoes down the streets of Kabul. Walk in my shoes down the streets of Riyadh; where women have to be covered up. Where they’re stoned, where they’re honor killed if they’ve been raped, where they can’t drive and they can’t travel without the permission of a male relative. That’s a war on women. When I go out and talk to women in our district and around the country, they’re concerned right now about jobs; they’re concerned about affordable healthcare. They’re concerned about the future of social security and Medicare for them, and a good education for their kids.”

McSally knows firsthand the challenges of achieving one’s dreams, especially for military women who aspire to do what was once considered a man’s job. According to the Air Force Personnel Center, only 5% or 671 of the 13,303 pilots serving in the USAF as of September 2014, are women. The percentage of female fighter pilots is even smaller. 

Knowing those challenges, she encourages young people to pursue their dreams even in the face of adversity.

“Don’t give up,” she says. “I entered the Air Force Academy in 1984, and it was nine years later before I got that phone call. Keep your dreams alive, excel in everything you do, and don’t let anxiety or fear stop you from achieving your dreams and potential.”

The challenges facing women that McSally has often spoken of extend to public service as well. While women are half the population of the United States, they hold only 104 of the 535 seats (less than 20%) in Congress. Just 20 women (20%) serve in the Senate and 84 (19.3%) serve in the House of Representatives.  Of the 104 women who serve in Congress, only four (McSally, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Sen. Joni Ernst) are veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

McSally speaking about the WASP contributions (McSally.gov)
McSally urges Congress to support the WASP (McSally.gov)

Representative McSally has been an ardent supporter of the restoration of inurnment rights for the WASP at Arlington Cemetery, recently introducing bipartisan legislation supporting this effort.

“This decision is simply appalling. At a time when we are opening all positions to women, the Army is closing Arlington to the pioneers who paved the way for pilots like me and all women to serve in uniform. It doesn’t make sense. These women fought, and died, in service to their country. They trained in the military style: sleeping on metal cots, marching, and living under military discipline. They deserve the full honors we give our war heroes, and I’ll continue to fight until they get them.”

FlyGirls honors Rep. Martha McSally’s military and public service to our country. Just like the WASP, she has broken barriers and challenged the status quo, paving the way for women everywhere!