Jen Nothelfer's journey of leadership and grit began when she joined the Navy to prove she could when a boyfriend after college said she'd never get a flight assignment because she was a woman. After graduating college in her home state of Virginiawith a degree in business and paralegal work, she’d hoped to become a lawyer, but bombed the LSAT. A girlfriend suggested they train as flight attendants, so she flew for two years, taking the jump seat every time she could.
Her boyfriend's comment changed everything. “He obviously didn’t know me,” she says. “That comment lit a fire in my belly.”
She started taking flight lessons at home, and when she went out flying with a friend, “I knew I had to do this.” Since Nothelfer was pursuing a flight contract in 1995, just two years after the lifting of combat exclusion, there were few women preceding her in the world of Naval aviation. When she first visited a recruiter, they offered her a supply position.
“I told them they could stuff that where the sun don’t shine,” she says.
She made her way to the Naval OCS and flight school, though due to a blown ACL from her soccer days she had to fight all the way to the Pentagon to get a flight slot. She finally landed in the Marine Corps flying the CH-46.
Though she was a team player, things did not go smoothly. In OCS, just before meeting her husband, she was sexually assaulted by another student.
“I never reported it. I just covered it up and put it away for the longest time,” she said. "I just wanted to get through flight school and get my wings."
One of the saving graces of her career was a small group of women she has known through her time in the military.
“I had Navy and Marine aviator girlfriends,” she says. They helped her keep it real.
Early on at the fleet replacement squadron when Nothelfer was learning to fly the CH-46, she and another female officer went to the Officer’s Club (The O Club).
“There were only three or four of us women in aviation slots on base,” she says. “I went to the bathroom partway through the evening. When I walked in I thought I’d gone into the wrong head. In the powder room there was a commander of one of the other squadrons, who was very married, and two other officers I didn’t know. Three of the waitresses were straddling them.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! I had to figure out what I was going to do, but I really had to pee. So I just said “hi there,” and walked back to the stalls. When I left I walked straight out of the club and drove home. I shouldn’t have been driving. But that’s when I knew how things were going to be. That event tainted my views of how squadron life was going to be. I looked at that and thought, 'You can choose to be better.' "
As reality set in about the environment, Nothelfer made her way.
"There was a woman in front of me at the fleet replacement squadron who performed poorly," she said. "When I came through, everyone judged me by how she had performed. I had a bad FAMO (the ground check ride) with an instructor who was trying to get at me, and I walked away from that finally understanding. That's never going to happen again. No one will ever have a reason to doubt me. I studied like a crazy person. Some of the guys started getting pissed off because I'd do so well.
When I got to my first squadron, they scheduled me for a flight-- you might as well have called it a check ride. They were putting me through the ringer. I went out and I nailed it. I must have had the biggest grin on my face. There was still a lot of crap, but that set the tone for me as an aviator."
Overall, her first squadron experience was positive. “I’m still friends with my first commander and sergeant major,” she says. "They have had a lifelong impact on both leadership and values for me."
She wouldn’t be friends with everyone.
"That was one of my hardest decisions. Realizing not everyone would like me. I have a strong personality. Driven, demanding, but insanely loyal. Not everyone saw that. I also covered myself with fairly thick armor – it was my way to survive.”
“You know what it’s like,” she tells me, and I do. “You get in that cockpit and know you’d better do better, fly better than anyone around you. You’re just waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under you. And then you worry about that other shit too.
You survive because you put that armor on. It doesn’t let anything in, but it doesn’t let anything out, either.”
If she were talking to herself as a new lieutenant, I’d say “Be true to yourself. Don’t try to put on someone else’s armor. It’s ok to be who you are. You’ll find your people…wait for them.”
Then Nothelfer hurt her back.
“I was about to fly a mission with ten Marines in the back a few months before deployment. During preflight, I couldn’t feel my hands. I couldn’t feel my arms all the way up to my armpits.”
Alarmed, she told her copilot she wouldn’t be able to fly. She went back to fight operations and to her state room.
She heard the commanding officer coming down the hall long before he arrived at her room. “He was a woman hater,” she says. “He started banging on my door,” she said. “I opened it, and he said: ‘Get your shit on and get out to that bird.’
I told him I couldn’t feel my arms, and he repeated himself, more loudly: ‘Get your shit on and get out to that bird!’
I went to the flight surgeon. He sent me directly to the ER where they shot lidocaine straight into my back.”
That wasn’t the end of it, though. Nothelfer was pulled from the deployment.
“That was the lowest point of my career,” she said. “Having to go back on that ship and get my gear and walk off again was devastating.”
It was not the end of harassment. When a fellow woman officer discovered she was pregnant before a deployment, Nothelfer found herself standing at attention in front of the Group Commander.
"When are you going to tell me you're pregnant, too?" he yelled.
Then there were the briefings when the commanding officer repeatedly referred to the "gents," despite the several women in the room.
At one briefing for a mission in Mogadishu, she'd had enough.
"I guess this isn't a briefing for me," she said, and walked out.
With respect to challenges, Nothelfer says “They made me who I am. I’ve moved past them. But if I see something today that doesn’t look right, smell right, watch out.”
What would Nothelfer tell a new leader today? "Stay true to your course. Work hard, play hard, and always give 100%."
Nothelfer is proud of her career. “I’m proud of being one of the first women to fly in the Marines, and proud for sticking around,” she says. "I started to develop an internal dialogue: I can't quit. I still believe I am doing good for the mission and good for the Corps. I think there's some purpose for the pain and suffering."
When I ask why she stuck it out in the face of the constant harassment, she mentions her three daughters. “What kind of example would I set if I just left?” she asked. “I hope I might have made a difference for at least one person over my career. Maybe I've even changed the mind of one of these dinosaurs who are still around.”
Her most memorable experience recently came when she was asked to assist at the opening of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. "I was asked to accompany the family of Corporal Jason Dunham who would be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously," she says, and her voice breaks. She takes a moment to recover. "It was such an honor, such an incredible honor."
As for grit, Nothelfer clearly has it. "Grit is unstoppable determination," she says.
Now Nothelfer works as a Marine Recruiting Support officer in the Reserves. Her husband is retiring after a full career on active duty next year.
With all she faced each day, “I feel so loyal to the Marines,” Nothelfer says. "For all the challenges, they are still my people."