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Nora Connor: Learning to Fly

December 10, 2012

Two women bridge the military-civilian gap to talk about machine guns and womanliness, dealing with trauma, and breaking old rules.

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Image from Flickr via dokmarius

By Nora Connor
Written in collaboration with Dart Society Reports

I met Sophie—I’ll call her Sophie—in a southern California Starbucks. It was getting late; my fellow producer and I had had to call her three times already that day to arrange the meeting around her work schedule, and more to the point, to keep convincing her to overcome her reservations and meet with us. She was sitting all the way at the back and spotted us immediately. She was slight, tiny even, with intense blue eyes, short blond hair and fine features. It was hard to believe at first that she was one of only a handful of female helicopter crew chiefs in the U.S. armed services.

“Do you know why I’m sitting in this spot?” she asked as we sat. “I need to be able to see the exits, the bathroom doors and every single person in here. I’m sorry if I come across as a little jumpy.” She spoke rapidly and guardedly, and continued to scan the room while we talked.

The two of us had been sent there by a major news network to report and film a one-hour story on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (or OIF/OEF, for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, as I learned to call them) who had struggled with substance abuse post-deployment. We felt pretty comfortable with the latest studies, statistics, and insights about the depth of the problem, and the resources available for addressing it. We knew, for example, that post-combat substance abuse, especially for those without previous history of addiction, is most often co-symptomatic with physical pain from injuries sustained in the field and/or PTSD, sometimes called “combat stress.”

She told the recruiter the job she wanted: aviation, helicopters, crew chief. “Women can’t do that,” the recruiter had said.

Neither of us had served in the military, and we also knew from our preparation that this would present an extra barrier to trust, and that we had to consider a specific set of ethical reporting issues. We would be interviewing about trauma, and across the notoriously rocky military-civilian gap. We would need to respect individual experiences while applying them to a wider phenomenon, asking about wars that all Americans were in some way implicated in but in which only a few of us had actually fought.

I also knew that meeting Sophie was important to me. She was the first female veteran (the only, it would turn out) we were able to really connect with in a month of field production, and she had turned down a number of TV interviews previously. Women comprise a greater percentage of our armed forces than ever before (around 15 percent), and the rules regarding combat vs. non-combat service positions have largely become a convenient fiction. In the U.S., women are still excluded by law from assignment to ground infantry combat units. But in our most recent wars, frontline and combat can occur nearly anywhere at any time. Female soldiers serving as drivers, interpreters, mechanics, medics and all manner of supposedly “support” positions have experienced combat at rates higher than ever before. The Department of Defense is currently reviewing its Combat Exclusion Policy, and a number of lawsuits are seeking to overturn the exclusions.

So I went into that Starbucks with the goal of landing Sophie as a character in our story, simply because of what she represented. Yet I quickly came to like her. This was a bit new. I’d gotten along with the guys we’d interviewed, and found their stories compelling. Still, there was a foreignness to them—a sort of prove-something guy thing, no matter how tempered by time and experience, that was tough for me to connect with. Though Sophie initially came across as mostly just blunt and skeptical, she was also a talker, and that helped.

She had brought a small photo album with her to the meeting. A few snapshots of her as a youngster—her big, country, Christian family. She talked about how she grew up—fixing cars and helping a horse give birth and riding dirtbikes. But mostly the photos were from her service days, two tours in Iraq, now a couple of years behind her. She’d just finished her college degree and was working as a paralegal.

She had family in the service, she told us, and had always looked up to them, for their courage and their willingness to serve their country—to protect others. That was the most important thing.

Sophie’s first battle was visiting the local military recruiter while still in high school. She told the recruiter the job she wanted: aviation, helicopters, crew chief. “Women can’t do that,” the recruiter had said. Sophie said that she’d read the rules and that he was wrong. She’d come back every once in a while, she told him, and when she got the answer she was looking for, she’d sign. She won that battle, though she did wait a couple years after high school before taking the leap. Having signed the papers, Sophie told her parents. “Sounds like you,” her dad said. Her mother: “You’re crazy. They own you.”

I could not identify with her particular dreams, but I respected the commitment and the fury with which she pursued them.

Her mother had been right. The need to be twice as good, twice as right. Twice as good at taking apart a military helicopter and putting it back together, with hardly anyone backing you up in a culture supposedly built on team bonding. The pauses where you have to leave the room, duck into the head to cry or yell, because they can’t be allowed to see you doing it. The harassment. “They don’t want tits in the shop,” was Sophie’s blunt summation.

That sounded pretty crappy to me, but as Sophie flipped the pages in her photo album, through the images of her in the field, in Iraq, I almost felt like I got it. She was sitting, legs hanging out, in the open side of a fearsome-looking helicopter, her hand resting on top of a mounted machine gun that dwarfed her in size. After all the work and all the struggles, she was on, she was the one who knew what she was doing, she was the one others would and could rely on. She was making me feel… unwomanly. My own opinions about the specifics of the Iraq war were very far away. I asked something silly, like “What kind of gun is that?” It really got her started. She was a total gearhead.

I realized that this was the essence of what I liked about Sophie. Even though she spoke with passion about combat missions, machine guns, and helicopters—things I would never know with my own hands, much as I faithfully tried to keep pace and take notes—I recognized the love of a thing done well and to its fullest. I could not identify with her particular dreams, but I respected the commitment and the fury with which she pursued them. She told me that on her first training flight she had played in her head, over and over, the Pink Floyd song “Learning to Fly.” She was sitting just like in the photo she’d shown us, legs over the side. She said, “When those skids went up…” and trailed off. The song goes, in part, “A fatal attraction is holding me fast; how can I escape its irresistible grasp?”

Sophie agreed to be interviewed—she agreed to let us into her home and to ask her nosy questions on camera and to meet her boyfriend and her dog. She told us about her two tours, the combat support missions she flew, shooting plenty of rounds from that mounted .50-cal. She told us about the evacuation flights for the wounded, and the “angel flights” (airlifting the bodies of deceased soldiers). She showed us the hand-painted stars hanging from her bedroom ceiling that she’d bought in a market “over there.” She was honest about her struggles with drinking between and after deployments, and her guilt and regrets about leaving Iraq before real peace was achieved. She’d spent time in a military hospital that treated Iraqi civilians, and still had a tough time being around children. Sophie was six months sober when we interviewed her, and felt so committed to her decision to stop drinking that she kept her roommate’s bottle of wine in the fridge, untouched, though he’d be on deployment with the Navy for a few more months. She got up and showed it to us. When she slammed the fridge door shut again I noticed a big, square kitchen magnet with a cartoon pulp-vamp lady and a thought balloon that read “Chocolate Can’t Get You Pregnant.” I could not help but laugh, despite the heaviness of everything we’d been talking about.

That was a few years ago. I recently looked Sophie up. Probably most everyone I’d ever interviewed assumed I would never think of them again. That their lives and stories were incidental to my job. That isn’t true. I wanted to know that Sophie was doing well and what she was up to—had she gone to law school, as she’d said she was considering? After a few days of searching I got hold of her on Facebook. While doing the story, I had been pretty confident that Sophie would make it, stick to her sobriety, and get started on her new life. But I’d suddenly, recently worried that she might have fallen off the wagon, or had a bad bump in the road. Studies by the RAND Corporation and the Department of Veterans’ affairs put the rate of substance abuse among recently deployed Iraq & Afghanistan vets at over 10 percent, and one Department of Defense survey found rates of alcohol abuse as high as 27 percent. The medical consensus is that early and effective treatment for PTSD and/or substance abuse is the best strategy for preventing relapse—a consensus sadly vindicated by the decades of information available on Vietnam veterans, who the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates continue to struggle with alcohol problems at incredibly high rates. And I knew it had been a risk for Sophie, and a brave decision to speak up, on camera, about substance abuse and PTSD. Would I bring up old, bad memories?

A helicopter gets you high enough off the ground to see everything, yet keeps you low enough to feel a part of it.

My fears were mostly misplaced. There had been some fallout with her family as a result of her TV appearance, she told me (which, as a producer, I was sorry to hear), but she’s running her own business, living in the country and teaching people, and mostly kids, to ride horses. Back to condition grounded, but determined to try—in the words of that same Pink Floyd song.

About six months after we’d wrapped our interviews the show aired and Sophie sent both of us producers a lovely letter. She said she thought the show was great and to tell our bosses we deserved a raise (that didn’t happen, either in the telling or the raising). A few months after that, I had the opportunity to film my first and, so far, only aerial shot. I attached and detached and cleaned and re-cleaned my lens and adapter. I sat on the tarmac next to the helicopter while a generator powered up my stabilizing camera mount, and considered the fact that I was soon to be leaning out the side of a tiny, doorless helicopter for one overhead shot in a short indie documentary that only a few people would ever see.

But when that bird went up, I wasn’t worried. It was loud and it was windy, but it was so beautiful. A helicopter gets you high enough off the ground to see everything, yet keeps you low enough to feel a part of it. I leaned further and further out the door, trusting the station wagon-model seatbelt and the bungee cord I’d looped around the camera handle, and I couldn’t get enough of the view of the ground or the angle of the setting sun. I didn’t want the flight to end, and I was grateful that I was shooting with a camera and not a gun. I spent a few extra hours that night compressing a minute or two of my aerial footage and sent it to Sophie. I got a nice email back: “Good for you! Helos are THE BEST!”

Nora Connor is a multimedia journalist with a background in labor and human rights organizing. She holds a BA from Columbia University (religion, anthropology) and an MA from NYU (journalism). Nora was the 2011-2012 Luce Foundation Fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media and is still engaged in research on international religion, human rights and digital media. You can follow her on Twitter @noraconnor.

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