On her third tour of duty in Afghanistan, rescue helicopter pilot MJ Hegar and her crew were Medevacing three American soldiers who urgently needed surgery when they took fire from a large belt-fed machine gun. Still, they lifted off, determined to save the wounded soldiers’ lives. But with their fuel lines hit, they had to crash land. Hegar, who sustained shrapnel in her arm and thigh, fought the enemy off while the patients were being transferred to the escort chopper, then jumped onto its skids as it took off, holding on with one hand while firing her rifle with the other.
Talk about performing while under pressure. Or being fighting fit. Or bravery. Hegar, who was awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, has since sued the Secretary of Defense to allow women in ground combat. “I ended up fighting on the ground, so by excluding women from ground combat, you’re only excluding women from proper training and promotions,” Hegar explains. The chiefs of all four branches of the military agreed with her, and the policy that excludes women has been repealed. Hegar, who is now writing her memoir, Shoot Like a Girl: How One Woman’s War Against the Taliban Led to Her Victory Over the Department of Defense (scheduled for release next year), took some time out to share what she’s learned from the battlefield.
On Performing Under Fire
“When the bullets are flying, you don’t have time to think. You react. You rely on muscle memory. So to perform under pressure or respond to a crisis in a way that you’re proud of, you need to prepare by behaving as though a spotlight were shining on you all day. If you hope you’ll act with integrity, you need to have integrity in every single action. Even opening the mail, you need to do it with integrity.”
On Being a Woman in a Historically Male Domain
“If you think of yourself as a female pilot or female engineer, everyone else will, too, and you’ll feel like you have something to prove. Instead, think of yourself as a pilot or engineer, while owning your power as a woman. In other words, don’t try to act masculine or be one of the guys—that’s really not the way to succeed. Just be yourself, and leverage your own strengths instead of mimicking others. Finally, be prepared for, but never assume discrimination. First ask yourself what you’re doing wrong or what you could do better, and remove every possibility as to why you’re not advancing or being promoted.”
On Overcoming Fear
“Bravery is not the absence of fear. As someone famously put it, courage is your action in the presence of fear. Whether you’re going through company layoffs or raising a child—by the way, I didn’t know fear until I became a mom—you need to focus on the mission and accept that fear is going to be there. Take a deep breath and put your laser focus on your goal. The rest is just scenery you’re passing by in a car.”
On Fighting for Women
“When you’re in a David and Goliath situation, you need to identify with the bigger picture. The sacrifice isn’t worth it if you’re fighting for just yourself. I did it for my daughter. And I did it for the military that I love. My lawsuit is primarily a military effectiveness issue. By repealing the combat exclusion policy, you have double the pool of candidates and ultimately a better crew. And I did it for the entire population, because women’s issues are human rights issues.”
What Every Military Woman Knows That Civilians Should Know, Too
“There’s no such thing as fair. If you know that, you’ll stop waiting for the world to realize what’s unfair and you’ll start looking at what’s in your control and what you can do to fix the problem.”
MJ Hegar will be speaking on panel “No Risk, No Reward: Taking the Risk to Do What You Want with Your Career” at the 2015 Texas Conference for Women.