Female Fliers Taking Fight to Enemy in Afghanistan

"If she could see over the dash it would be better," one pilot joked, then quickly added a simple, but high compliment, "But she's an all right stick."

Since Lt. Col. Carey Wagen began flying in the early 1990s, the situation for female pilots has changed tremendously.

Wagen, 40, is the first female battalion commander in the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. Her role as Task Force Commander of Task Force Corsair is one she has looked forward to her entire career.

Female Combat Aviators Finding Credibility

"Commanding an aviation battalion, just being in charge of 400 people, 20-plus aircraft, and it's just what I came into the army for," she said. "Leading soldiers, leading in the cockpit, and leading the task force into combat."

Today, Wagen has four female aviators under her command flying assault and attack helicopters, plus a female crew chief and door gunner. For her, attitudes regarding gender have changed a great deal.

"I always felt like you didn't have instant credibility when walking into a room with peers of equal experience," she said. "You always had to, as a woman, prove yourself a little bit more than your male counterparts. Nowadays I feel like I'm right on par with my peers and male counterparts, but it wasn't like that when I first got in. I felt it required me to do twice as much work."

As the only U.S. rotary wing aviator in Afghanistan commanding a battalion, Wagen balances her responsibilities as both a commander and a Blackhawk pilot – a role in which she excels. On a recent mission when she picked up U.S. Special Forces from the side of a mountain, the praise came quickly from the usually tight-lipped soldiers.

"Ma'am that was an awesome landing!" one gushed into the headset.

For the current generation of female aviators who join the military during war time, engagement with the enemy is expected. They are at risk of being hit by enemy fire and are expected to shoot the enemy.

Sgt. Jacqueline Bayer, 22, is the only female helicopter crew chief in her company. In that role, Bayer maintains the Blackhawk helicopter as well as controls one of the two machine guns on the aircraft.

"During missions our job to keep the aircrew safe," she said. "If we do get fired at or we are cleared to engage a target, we take that target. That usually includes gunfire, so you get shot at while you're shooting at them."

Bayer said besides gunfire, she routinely gets razzed, but says she came to expect the jokes and comments about her being a woman in the male-dominated position.

"To be honest, when you join the Army, you're already a misfit because you're a female," she said. "But when you work with the guys you don't even realize it anymore."

Women Pilots Protecting the Troops on the Ground

The Beach Haven, N.J., native said her mother cried when she told her she was joining the military, but her father was jealous "because I was doing something cooler than he did in his lifetime," she said. For Bayer, who was in Iraq in 2006-2007, the job has been everything she hoped for.

"I have always been obsessed with aviation. The physics that goes into rotary and the mechanics, it's just ridiculous. It's awesome," she said. "I was always attracted to that. I've always wanted to travel. To travel and do a cool job and get paid for that and go explore the world. I graduated from high school and just did it."

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