By Erin Quinn-Kong
Major Mary Jennings Hegar has quite the life story. Among the most harrowing details: In 2009, the Air Force pilot was shot down during a medevac mission while on her third tour of duty in Afghanistan. Despite being wounded, she fought to save the lives of her crew and their patients. Then, in 2012, she filed suit against the Secretary of Defense asserting that the Combat Exclusion Policy, which kept women from getting credit for officially serving in combat roles, was unconstitutional—and won. She details both of these battles and more in her memoir Shoot Like a Girl, which comes out March 7 and has already been optioned for a movie. These days, she works at Dell in Austin, Texas, teaches at the University of Texas, is a speaker and executive coach and is a mom to a toddler, with another baby on the way.
Did you always know you wanted to be in the military growing up?
It was more like I wanted to be a combat pilot and the only way to do that was to be in the military. I wanted to serve my country, but I don’t really come from a military background. I think that the character who influenced me the most was Han Solo, a great pilot who was a little bit of a rebel. That was kind of me.
That’s so interesting! So seeing Han Solo is what put this idea into your head?
Yeah, I was a huge fan, and you know how certain things just kind of speak to you? That is what spoke to me, as far as what I thought I’d be good at, and kind of became a dream. The way to do that was through the military. I was young at the time, and as I became older I actually spent five years in the military before becoming a pilot, so I wasn’t one of these kids who joined up thinking it was going to be like Top Gun. I was already fully committed to being a patriot, so by the time I got there it wasn’t just about being a pilot.
The first five years of your active duty were in plane maintenance. What interested you about that?
Nothing. I didn’t choose it. The Air Force came first, and when I didn’t get a pilot slot, I got aircraft maintenance assigned to me. But I was really glad that I did. I had somebody ask me once, “How did you push past all the failures?” And I was really taken aback by the question because I never viewed it as failure. Every time a door shut, I thought,”Well, crap. That sucks that I can’t become a pilot that way.” But I didn’t think, “Oh my God, I’m not going to be a pilot.” That thought just never creeped into my mind. So when I got aircraft maintenance, instead of thinking, “Oh, I won’t be a pilot,” I thought, “While it’s not being a pilot, it’s definitely not going to be a waste of my time because I’m going to get to learn a lot about aircraft systems. And I’ll have a leg up when I do go to pilot training.” I think that attitude had a lot to do with my success.
When you finally got a pilot slot, was it everything you hoped for?
It was a lot of work—a lot of work and sacrifice. And when I mentor younger adults and adolescents, a lot of them want to be pilots, and there’s a lot of times where they’ll say, “I don’t know if it’s worth it.” And I say, “Well, I would discourage you from doing it because even for me and my pilot dreams, everyone has a moment in pilot training when they think, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’” It’s so much work, and it’s so much sacrifice, and it takes so long to achieve your goal that if you’re not fully committed you really shouldn’t start down the path.
You did three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and in 2009 you were shot down on a Medevac mission and sustained wounds that earned you a Purple Heart. Do you still have to deal with any of those wounds?
I have a back injury from the crash that is why I’m not flying anymore, but it’s not debilitating. The medical requirements for being a pilot are pretty high, so it’s pretty easy to get disqualified from that. I have shrapnel wounds in my arm. There’s scaring there, which I really hate seeing, so I covered it with a tattoo that I love very much. And I have some residual PTSD that I would say, if anything, is the thing that I like the least.
In 2012, you filed a suit against the Secretary of Defense on the combat exclusion policy. What inspired that?
I was at the tip of the spear, and when I filed the suit my commander said, “I don’t understand you filing this lawsuit. You couldn’t have been more in harm’s way if I had handed you over to the enemy myself.” I guess that’s part of why I filed the lawsuit, because I didn’t feel like I was being held back until I couldn’t be a pilot anymore; they wouldn’t let me apply for ground combat role. I felt like I wasn’t as hindered, and I found out that other women in other branches were. The Air Force is the most progressive of all the branches, so I had seen ground combat but there aren’t enough examples of women who have seen it. A lot of women have but not a lot of public women who you can track down. As much as I absolutely hate publicity, public speaking and media interviews, I feel an obligation to do it, so that’s kind of how I felt about the lawsuit. Even though I didn’t feel as hindered as a lot of women, and even though I felt like I got a lot of credit, there are a lot of women in other branches who aren’t getting that kind of credit. I felt like it was a responsibility.
So how long did it take them to repeal it?
The policy was repealed within three to four months. But it wasn’t until this past December that the Secretary of Defense came out and said there would be no exceptions—which was the big win because the policy being repealed was a big deal. They gave the branches a couple years to study the impact and decide if they’re going to still keep certain jobs closed. The policy was a blanket policy that barred it. Once it was lifted that didn’t mean all those jobs were open. Before they were closed by default and had to be opened one at a time. Now they would be opened by default and have to be closed one at a time. When the Secretary of Defense announced there would be no exceptions, that was the biggest win.
What are the biggest misconceptions about people in the military?
There are so many misconceptions, especially where women are concerned. I gave a speech once and had someone come up to me afterward. He wasn’t angry, he was genuinely asking a question. He said, “I understand the message you’re trying to convey, but how do you get away with pretending like you’re in combat?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, women aren’t in combat so…” I looked at him with surprise and said, “Oh my God, you just listened to my whole speech, and you think I’m lying or pretending?” I showed him my scars. So that was a huge misconception; people thought we were saying, “We should introduce women to combat,” and didn’t understand that women have been in combat. Now we think it should be officially recognized and legal and let those women get credit for their combat experience and go and lead combat commands and go and become members of the joint chief of staff and that type of thing. That’s what it was about. It wasn’t about let’s let women into combat—women have been in combat since the revolution.
What would you tell other women who want to be a pilot or want to be in the military?
The same thing I tell any woman who is facing an objection over what she wants to be: You have to follow your heart and be true to yourself, or you’re never going to be happy. Whatever it is you want to be, don’t let somebody telling you that you’re not allowed to do that stop you. Maybe by the time you’re ready those doors will have been opened—or maybe you need to kick them open yourself.
Tell me a little bit about your book that’s coming out.
It started as a book about women in combat, and my agent told me, “People don’t want to hear about the history of women in combat. They want to hear you and your story.” So I redid it over the course of about four months, and that seemed to grab people’s attention so I guess she was right. I’m excited and grateful and also terrified about everyone reading it.
Now you work at Dell and also teach at UT. What do you do to relax?
That’s a great question! I send my toddler to my mom’s house, so I can float in the pool with a cocktail. Of course, I can’t do that now that I’m pregnant. I’m kind of a homebody and an introvert, so I hang out with my husband. I love hiking, but that’s not an option during the summer here.
Do you miss being a pilot or is that a chapter that’s closed?
I miss certain aspects of it. I don’t miss being in that environment, being around the machismo brotherhood. They were pretty cool to me because I proved myself in combat, but that doesn’t mean that it’s accepting to women in general. I took a lot of flak when I told them I was giving up my fight to not be medically disqualified and wanted to go live a civilian life, get married and have kids. I miss it, but I wouldn’t trade what I have now for anything. Of course, I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had then for anything either. I’m really glad I did it. I’m just in love with my husband and my kids.