Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt is not only a decorated fighter pilot; she has broken through gender barriers few thought possible. She was recently named the Air Force’s first female wing commander, commanding 5,000 airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.
Twenty years ago, when she had completed part of her training, she was told that if she wanted to be fighter pilot, she would be the first and would draw attention. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t want the attention, but I want to fly fighters more than anything,’” she responded.
She knew she was entering a world dominated by male swagger. Think “Top Gun” — “The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room.”
And that attitude was not just in the movies. Even the Pentagon brass once argued that male bonding was critical.
“If you want to make a combat unit ineffective, add some women to it,” retired Gen. Robert Barrow, the former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, had said at a 1991 hearing before Congress.
Like it or not, though, they were ordered to change by the Secretary of Defense. And now, Leavitt and others have inspired a new generation. There are currently 700 female pilots in the Air Force and 60 female combat pilots.
“Regardless of your gender,” Capt. Patricia Nadeau said. “I think everyone’s going to look up to her.”
Leavitt, 46, has logged more than 2,700 hours — 300 in combat over Iraq and Afghanistan — and dropped bombs on enemy targets and avoided enemy fire.
Along the way, she married a fellow fighter pilot — who’s now stationed “only” three hours away — and had two children, Shannon and Michael.
She now trains others for combat, commanding a 5,000-member fighter wing. On one particular day, she led a mock bombing raid in the skies over North Carolina.
“You know gender, race, religion, none of that matters, what matters is how you perform,” Leavitt said.