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More Martha

by David Westheimer


After doing what she did best in relative obscurity for months, Martha is back in the news again. The Martha who has emerged from the shadows is Lt. Col. Martha McSally of the US Air Force. Last month she was made the first female commanding officer of an Air Force combat unit. She is now CO of the 354 th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

About her new assignment, which was made July 19, Lt. Col. McSally told Nicole Gaudiano, an Air Force Times staff writer, “Commanding a fighter squadron is what we all aspire to do. We’re the pointy end of the spear. I understand the marching orders and we will be prepared to deploy with an aggressive attitude that we will win.”

She first became widely known, and in some elevated circles widely unpopular, a couple of years ago when she took the Department of Defense to court protesting the Air Forces dress code for female personnel in Saudi Arabia — if a female went off-base she had to wear the abaya, the black head-to-toe cloak worn by Saudi Arabian women. (As was reported in a previous Senior Women article.*) She was the Air Force’s senior woman fighter pilot and the first woman to fly combat missions over enemy territory, doing it from Prince Sultan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia.

At the time of the lawsuit, she told CBS News Correspondent Lesley Stahl, “I can fly a single-seated aircraft in enemy territory but I can’t drive a vehicle. They turned me into a fighter pilot. This is who I am. When I see something messed up, I’m going to challenge it.”

She won her suit but it appeared her promising military career had hit the wall. She was given poor performance reviews and was generally considered unfit to hold a leadership position and subsequently reassigned to Davis-Monthan.

But class tells. Or, to coin another cliché, cream rises to the top. So at Davis-Monthan, instead of being in exile she’s in charge. The evaluators who predicted a bleak future for her military career probably were not overjoyed at her elevation but retired Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught thought it grand. Gen. Vaught is president of Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

She told the Air Force Times’ Gaudiano, “I foresee this leading to great things for her because she will be a real winner of a squadron commander. I’m confident she’ll be sensitive to the mission and, just as importantly, to the welfare of the people in her command. She is a leader in every sense of the word and one of the most courageous people that I’ve met.”

Alongside the article, the Air Force Times provided a list of pioneering women in aviation, from Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo (1932), to Col. Dana Born, first woman to oversee instruction at the Air Force Academy (2004, pending confirmation by the Senate). Lt. Col. McSally is on the list, too, with another first:

As Capt. Martha McSally she was the first woman to fly a combat mission (1995).

©David Westheimer for

Editor's Note: Read David's other articles on Lt. Col Martha McSally: Women in Blue; Women in Blue: Round Two as well as a reference in Killer Chick.


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