Former A-10 Pilot Brings the Fight for Servicemembers to Capitol Hill

Former A-10 Pilot Brings the Fight for Servicemembers to Capitol Hill
About the Author

Amanda Miller is a freelance journalist based in Denver.

In 2010, Col. Martha McSally retired from the Air Force, leaving behind a 26-year career studded with groundbreaking achievements.

An A-10 Thunderbolt pilot, she was the first woman in U.S. history to fly a fighter into combat and the first one to lead a fighter squadron into a fight.

But, like many veterans transitioning out of military service, she did not have “total clarity” on what she was going to do after she got out.

She had always felt called to serve - that much was a given.

“Each day is a gift, and I want to make a difference with my life,” says McSally, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 and represents Arizona's 2nd district.

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McSally is an Air Force Academy graduate with master's degrees from the Air War College and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

After five assignments in Tucson over the course of her military career, Arizona was home.

McSally still misses the battle-buddy bond that was “pretty strong and intense,” even though those years in a flight suit included times of feeling apart.

“There was very much an environment of being isolated and alone at key moments,” she says. There had been a “tremendous amount of resistance” to women's advancement as fighter pilots.

Future female pilots' fates flew with her, and she knew it. “Get better every time you fly” was her constant mantra.

Meanwhile, she'd publicly fought the Pentagon over an issue of women's rights, ending in a lawsuit naming then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At the time, female troops serving in Saudi Arabia were required to wear the Muslim “abaya” body covering in public, while no similar restriction applied to male servicemembers.

She wasn't even looking when she ran across the job posting that offered a way to keep serving after her retirement, as a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.

About six months into that job came the day in 2011 when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot during a constituent meeting in a grocery store parking lot. Over the course of Giffords' recovery and leading up to her eventual resignation, McSally came to realize what she needed to do.

“It was more to me a call to duty,” she says. “I decided to be true to it.”

From the day she made up her mind to come home to Arizona and run for Congress until she won her seat in the House of Representatives by 167 votes in 2014, only 1,049 days elapsed.

The oath of office she swore on becoming a member of Congress was the same, word for word, as the oath she pledged when she first put on the uniform of a military officer.

Now McSally is serving in civilian clothes at her new duty station in Washington, as she puts it - where the lack of a clear mission focus can be frustrating but where she can make a bigger, more strategic impact. She serves on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees and chairs the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

She's a “secret shopper” of VA health care, getting her own care through the system. She has her eye on the issue of higher rates of homelessness among female veterans.

She still can appreciate, from back when she was fighting DoD over women's rights, the words of encouragement she received from friends and mentors during that lonely time ­- which she doesn't characterize that way unless you ask.

“I would rather have paved the way for others behind me,” McSally says. “It's just kind of the core of who I am.”

McSally has announced her intent to run for the U.S. Senate. Arizona's primary is Aug. 28. McSally's fellow recipient of the Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, is on the Democratic ballot for the same seat.