You HAVE permission to engage – meet Belle of Steele #14 Vernice “Flygirl” Armour

What does it take to become America’s first African American female combat pilot?  For Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour, it was going from Zero to Breakthrough!  She believes that harnessing the mindset of mission accomplishment no matter what the barriers, or perceived barriers, may be is the breakthrough mentality required to accomplish whatever you set you mind to.

Vernice

Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour

By refusing to settle, even in the smallest moments and demanding a breakthrough in every challenge, Vernice flew to new heights.  She remembers a conversation that became the catalyst for her own new flight plan and mission for life.  Humbly relating that she was “just doing her job” when she used pinpoint accuracy in her Cobra fighter helo to destroy a building housing an enemy mortar position in Iraq, she shared a story.  A few years after returning home from the war, she met a man who’d been in that same battle. He approached her and said, “Ma’am, you saved my life that day.”  He had been one of the soldiers under attack.  It was the deployment of Denise’s missle that took out enemy warriors who had been attacking his platoon.

Vernice completed two tours of duty in the Gulf, earning an Air Medal with a star of Valor, thirteen Strike Flight awards, a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, a Navy Presidential Unit Citation, and load of other awards, decorations, and public recognition. She’s been featured on Oprah, CNN, Tavis Smiley, NPR and numerous other TV and radio programs.  According to Oprah Winfrey, Vernice has “no shortage of accomplishments” describing her as “awesome girl…awesome!”  But despite this notoriety, her sole purpose is igniting the flame of passion within our youth to improve their productivity and commitment to achieve personal accomplishments within our society.

As a pioneering pilot, Vernice used her commanding role in technology and engineering to achieve what many said she could never do – become a combat pilot.  She ignored any naysayers along the way. She believes that women and men from all walks of life have the potential to achieve higher levels of success if they can only create the right flight plan.

Meeting the Commander-in-chief, President Obama

Meeting the Commander-in-chief, President Obama

As such she took her mission on the road, writing the book Zero to Breakthrough.  Her vision for an America that maintains greatness one accomplishment at a time, is for individuals to create their own flight plan designed to take them to new heights. Vernice describes a seven step, battle-tested method for accomplishing goals that matter. Today she works as a coach, national speaker, consultant for large entities such as Bank of America, NASA, the Secret Service, and Comcast. She is very clear in her message that she doesn’t believe in being average, striving for mediocrity, or just fitting in.

When interviewed, she related to me that she never focused on racism or sexism. According to Vernice, who found herself surrounded my a majority of males in her chosen professions, she stayed focused and did her job. Just like the boys. She never demanded special privileges or favors.  In fact, her journey and education started with her becoming a police officer. At one point, she even played women’s professional football. But once she achieved that, she was spurred on to further greatness.  In 1994, attended Middle Tennessee State University and participated in Army ROTC. She trained as a Marine officer in 1998 at Quantico Marine Base. Her first deployment in the Marines was with Marine Air Craft Wing MAG-39, in Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, learning to fly the Cobra.

Vernice uses some of her military jargon to motivate others. One of her slogans is “You have the permission to engage. You are cleared HOT!”  In other words, give yourself the permission to begin; to start steps toward achieving one’s goals and aspirations.  When flying in the middle of combat and needing to engage the enemy, pilots have to ask for permission to shoot their weapons. The magical phrase needed in order to protect Marines and Soldiers on the ground is ‘Cleared Hot.’  That means, go for it.  All clear.  One of her tenants is “acknowledge the obstacles, DON’T give them power.  There will be many times that barriers, such as racism or sexism are present. Financial barriers, societal barriers, or even doubts within ourselves may threaten to thwart plans.  But no matter what the roadblock, she encourages focus to come up with solutions. She emphasizes that how we react versus respond to barriers is the answer.

In her seminars, she has people think of themselves as an attack helicopter.  “Who needs a runway?” she questions. “Take off from where you are!” she motivates. “As soon as you add power (with a solution) and take off, you’re flying! Where you go, either foward or backward is up to you.”  Her five step process for success is:

  1.  Create your own flight plan, develop consciousness and awareness of what you are good at.
  2.  Pre-flight – check out all the details, and troubleshoot. Release fears holding you down.
  3.  Take off – give it some power and just do it.
  4.  Execute – stay on course and focus. In each situation practice self-discipline to achieve mastery.
  5.  Review, recharge, and re-attack!  If faced with obstacles find solutions and go again.Zero to Breakthrough

Vernice tells people, “If you do what average people do, you’ll have what average people have. And honestly, I haven’t met a single person who admits to wanting to be average.” She recognizes that people want to accomplish significant goals and become assets to their communities.  Making that flight plan and committing to go beyond is the real breakthrough that leads to success, significance and a meaningful legacy for our society.

Believing that there is no such thing as a dream out of reach, Vernice integrates the concepts of preparation, strategy, courage, legacy, and the importance of high spirits and enthusiasm to create an inner force.  This “FlyGirl” blends compassion, humor, drive, and a no-nonsense attitude to ignite the fire within, help lay the groundwork for success, and discover the self-discipline that enables anyone to blast through obstacles and challenges.

For these reasons and many more, AgeView Press is proud to have Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour as the fourteenth Belle of Steel.  What are you waiting for?  Go Zero to Breakthrough!

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Did John McCain have the “Right stuff?”

This wonderful post is a bit long, but worth the read! Great spin and take on fighter pilots vs. attack squadron pilots. It was written by my dear friend and colleague, the iconic Zalin Grant, whose book Over the Beach is considered the book about the airwar in Vietnam.  Enjoy and please post a comment!   He would love to read them.

The Day John McCain Got Shot Down   Zalin Grant War Tales

Did He Show the Right Stuff?

By Zalin Grant

John McCain received mixed reviews from fellow pilots when he arrived on the USS Oriskany in 1967, a month before he was shot down and captured. Cal Swanson, commander of fighter squadron VF-162, was enthusiastic.  Swanson thought McCain proved he had the right stuff by getting himself assigned to the Oriskany, an aircraft carrier sailing off the coast of North Vietnam in the South China Sea.  The Oriskany had seen more combat and suffered heavier casualties than any ship in the Vietnam War. McCain’s own aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal, had been put out of action by a horrific fire two months earlier.

 After the Forrestal fire, McCain was assigned to Saigon as a navy PR aide.  He was perfect for the job—handsome, charming, witty.  He had met R.W. (Johnny) Apple, a well-known reporter for the New York Times, and Apple had smoothed his way in Saigon by introducing him to journalists and to the U.S. military and civilian command. 

 John McCain could have served out his tour flacking for the navy and having a lot of fun doing it—dining at Saigon’s French restaurants and hitting the bars full of pretty Vietnamese girls.  But McCain wanted to get back into combat.  He had completed only five missions before the Forrestal fire.  Cal Swanson thought McCain’s attitude reflected well on his courage and patriotism.

Navy pilot John McCain

Navy pilot John McCain

 McCain would not be joining VF-162, Swanson’s fighter squadron, however.  McCain was not a fighter pilot, although in later years the media would perpetuate the mistaken belief that he was. Trained as an A-4 bomber pilot, he was assigned to attack squadron VA-163, which had an illustrious history.  James Stockdale, a legend in the war, had commanded the squadron—and the air wing—before he was shot down and captured.

 Still, a lot of pilots on the ship were not as enthusiastic as Swanson about McCain.  They were not really convinced that he had the right stuff. Naval aviation was a small, tightly-knit community made up of highly-trained men with large egos and a fiercely competitive nature. Even if they did not know each other personally, everybody was linked together via the gossip hotline, and McCain’s reputation had preceded him to the Oriskany.

 Some of the negativity was not his fault. His family background was bound to stir skepticism and jealousy.  McCain’s grandfather had been a highly-decorated admiral in World War Two. His father, John S. McCain II, also an admiral, would soon become commander-in-chief of all forces in the Pacific, making him the highest ranking officer in the Vietnam War.

 In military terms, John Sidney McCain III was born with two silver spoons in his mouth.  It was something he evidently considered later in life to be both a blessing and a curse.

 Nevertheless, McCain had acted as though he was determined to show all those who were inclined to think the worst of him that they were right.  As he wrote in his book Faith of My Fathers, “I did not enjoy the reputation of a serious pilot or an up-and-coming junior officer.” His record as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy was dismal. He piled up demerits left and right for breaking the rules, and barely passed his schoolwork, graduating 894th in a class of 899.

 That might have been checked off to youthful rebellion.  Plenty of kids spent their college years partying but then sobered up after they were slapped in the face by the reality of making it in the outside world. But after he left Annapolis, McCain continued to show the same attitude that had almost got him kicked out of the naval academy.  He barely passed flight school. And then he crashed two airplanes and damaged a third.

 The first crash took place during advanced flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. According to McCain, the engine stalled while he was practicing landings. The plane fell into the water of the bay just off the airfield and knocked him unconscious. McCain woke up and somehow managed to get out of the cockpit and escaped serious injury. Investigators reported that they started the recovered engine without any problem, and their report left open the possibility of pilot error.

Worst naval accident since WWII.  McCain's plane was struck by a missile aboard the USS Forrestal.

Worst naval accident since WWII. McCain’s plane was struck by a missile aboard the USS Forrestal.

The next accident took place in Spain while McCain was assigned to an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. He tried to fly his propeller-driven A-1 fighter-bomber under a row of pylon-supported electric power lines.  This was a “hotdogging” stunt by U.S. pilots in Europe that had caused outrage.  McCain’s plane hit and damaged the lines so badly that thousands of people lost power.

 “My daredevil clowning had cut off electricity to a great many Spanish homes,” McCain wrote later, “and created a small international incident.”

 In 1965, McCain flew a navy airplane to Philadelphia to attend the Army-Navy football game. On the way back to his base in Norfolk, Virginia, the plane’s engine quit, he said, so he bailed out.  The plane crashed and was destroyed.

 In the U.S. Navy, for a pilot to crash one plane was pushing it.  To crash two often resulted in an official investigation to determine if he should be taken off flight status.  How McCain got away with crashing two airplanes and smashing power lines in Spain was a mystery, although other pilots thought it had to do with his family connections.

 McCain volunteered for Vietnam and was assigned to an A-4 bomber squadron on the USS Forrestal.  He was soon to be 31 years old and held the rank of lieutenant commander, equal to that of army major.  On the morning of July 29, 1967, McCain was sitting in the cockpit of his Skyhawk waiting to be launched by the ship’s catapult. Another plane accidentally set off a Zuni missile that hit the fuel tank of McCain’s A-4, touching off a fire that spread rapidly across the ship. McCain managed to escape injury, but 134 sailors died and many others were badly burned.

 It was the worst U.S. Navy accident since World War Two and the fourth serious accident McCain had been involved in since becoming a pilot.  His reputation for being a “hotdog”—a show-off pilot who broke the rules—led to rumors that McCain had caused the fire by trying to scare the pilot behind him by suddenly shooting flames out of his tail exhaust.  There was no evidence McCain was at fault and the fire was ruled accidental. But the rumors persisted.

 The USS Forrestal fire was the worst naval accident since World War II. It started after a rocket hit John McCain’s plane.

 McCain also developed a reputation for volatility. He was a fun-guy and made friends easily.  But he lost friends easily, too. He had a quick temper and was prone to flare up over minor incidents. As his best friend from the early years said, “John could piss people off.” 

 McCain’s squadron on the Oriskany was composed of 15 alpha males who spent most of their time when they weren’t flying or sleeping in a ready room no bigger than a medium-sized living room at home. Above all, they admired officers who remained cool and calm under all circumstances. McCain’s squadron commander, Bryan Compton, was considered the ideal officer, though no one wanted to sit near him in the ready room because the flight suit of “Magnolia,” as the squadron called him, usually smelled to high heaven.

 “I would have followed Bryan Compton anywhere,” said Dick Wyman, a pilot in Swanson’s squadron.  “He was the kind of guy the worse things got, the better he was.  He was the ugliest s.o.b. you ever saw.  But he was our shining star.”

 McCain called Compton “one of the bravest, most resourceful squadron commanders, one of the best A-4 pilots in the war.”

 In any case, Oriskany pilots did not have time to pay much attention to the admiral’s son, because the ship was running bombing operations against North Vietnam on a 24-hour schedule.  The Oriskany was a small and undistinguished carrier, commissioned at the end of World War Two.  Nobody could explain why the ship had turned into the leading combat carrier of the Vietnam War. It was as though the runt of the litter had grown into a pit bull.

 The squadrons on the Oriskany were front-loaded with lieutenant commanders like McCain and it was do-or-die time for them in terms of promotions.  This doubtless accounted, at least partly, for the carrier’s aggressiveness.  These were seasoned professional officers and only the best and bravest would be promoted to the next higher rank of commander (lieutenant colonel) and very few to captain (colonel).

 The pilots watched each other like hawks, trying to stay even in the number of missions flown over North Vietnam.  Always ready to take the risks, they developed tactics to survive the surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft fire they faced every time they went on a mission.  In a war, of course, there was always the factor of luck. Sometimes you just couldn’t avoid getting shot down.

 But their tactics worked surprisingly well. To evade SA-2 missiles (SAMs), the pilots used a maneuver to confuse the missile’s guidance system.  An American electronics plane was flying off the coast during the attacks.  When it intercepted the missile’s guidance signals, the plane alerted the pilot as to whether a SA-2 was headed toward him by sounding a tone in his headset.

 “If we thought the SA-2 was homing in on us, we would try to keep our speed up until the missile was several seconds away and then barrel roll on our backs and pull vertically down,” said Roger Duter, a bomber pilot on the Oriskany with McCain. “At that time the missile was moving too fast to follow us down and we would recover and resume our course to the target.”

 Since the SAM maneuver always worked if executed properly, the biggest danger came from the fire of antiaircraft artillery (AAA). The pilots used the tactic of weave and zigzag to keep from flying into the path of the exploding flak.

 “We lost more aircraft to AAA than SAMs, though the SA-2 seemed more threatening from a personal point of view,” Duter said.

 All pilots were taught the tactics to keep from getting shot down.  To the American public, every pilot brought down by enemy fire was a hero. But carrier pilots made a sharp distinction between someone who was unavoidably shot down and a pilot who simply made a mistake.

******************************************************

Compliments to Zalin Grant.  Some fine writing there.   Reprinted from Pythia Press with permission.  Copyright 2008.  For more of his War Tales, follow him on Pythia Press. Find out what happens next . . . in Part II of Did John McCain have the “Right stuff?”  next week’s post!  

 

A Vietnam hero to all women – Diane Evans Carlson, AgeView Press’ 5th Belle of Steel

Diane Evans Carlson founder of the Vietnam Women's War Memorial

Diane Evans Carlson, “Never say you are just a nurse.”

When you think of the Vietnam War, what images come to mind?    War ravaged soldiers in the jungle, gritty and grimy awaiting the next bamboo spike?   Hueys cutting the air with their loud propellers, transporting wounded to evac hospitals.   Nurse McMuphy running in fatigues along China Beach to the hot deck to meet a chopper?   Long haired protesters with beads burning the flag and carrying signs on the steps of the capitol?

Diane Carlson Evans, RNC, RNV experienced all of the above.   Diane was a 21 year old Army nurse serving less than 30 miles from the front at the 71st Evac hospital in Pleiku.  She also worked the burn unit at Vung Tau evac hospital during 1968-69.   For Diane, these were images she experienced every day.   Literally caring for thousands of injured, burned and dying soldiers brought to her unit during her year of service in the Vietnam.  Unforgettable images imprinted in her mind.   Holding the hands of soldiers clinging to life.  Easing the pain of those un-helpable into death.   Serving in helmets and flak jackets was a daily task; never ending choppers and stretchers.

But she regrets not one moment.  She couldn’t imagine nursing without that experience.   Vietnam shaped who she was then and who she is now.  For, Diane Carlson Evans is the nurse who made sure that the service of women during Vietnam was not forgotten.    She is responsible for the creating the movement that established the Woman’s Vietnam War Memorial in 1993.

When  Diane returned home after her service, she experienced the overwhelming sensation gripping a nation.  Why were young men dying by the thousands?  Why was the war escalating with no clear mission?  She like many others, felt betrayed by the government.    All her efforts felt senseless.  She slipped into a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) depression.   Feeling she didn’t fit in anywhere.

She attempted to return to hospital nursing.  But her practice in Vietnam, although horrific, had been autonomous.  She did what had to be done.  There were no rules that prohibited nurses from acting to save a life.   Physicians, medics and RNs worked synonymously as a team.    Frustrated, she returned to military nursing for the VA caring for the thousands of vets whom lives she had saved.   But seeing their agony, their PTSD, their heartbreak upon returning to a nation who seemed not to care about their service.  In fact, many had been verbally assaulted and slandered.  Characterized as “drug using, glassy eyed baby killers.”   Nurses were encouraged to be silent about their service.  All of this only furthered her own spiral of guilt and shame.

“Youthful exuberance serving a nation at war.”

Not willing to give up, she suppressed all the negative feelings, deeper and deeper until finally, she left nursing for a time.  She married, started a family, and was determined to just get on with life.   She wrapped up the pain of Vietnam in a box, tied it up securely and moved on.

But in 1982, when the Vietnam War memorial was established in Washington, it all came back.    Pandora’s Box was open.    She was compelled to attend the memorial.     She explained to her concerned husband that she wished to go alone, which hurt him.   She had gone to Vietnam alone.    She had returned from Vietnam alone.  She felt she should go to the dedication alone.   Where she would reunite with her fellow sister vets.  Only those who served could possibly understand the conflict of emotions.

At the wall, Diane touched only two names of the thousands, Charlene, her best friend who was a nurse killed during service and Eddie Lee Evanston.   Eddie was the one patient whose name, amidst the hundreds she personally cared for, that she would never forget.  The beautiful, blond haired, blue eyed, vibrant young man whose life ended in her arms.

The overwhelming sadness, rage and rampant depression post-Vietnam surfaced with a vengeance.  Her work was not done.   Diane wanted the nation to know the truth.   If nurses had not been there by the thousands and played their part, the wall would have been twice as long, filled with soldiers whose lives were not saved.   She was moved by what she did not see. The wall and the statue of the three men reminded her that yet again, the women were forgotten.    A mere “footnote” of the war.  People must know the other part of the story.  The women who served and cared for these brave men.   Their stories needed to be told too.  Diane was filled with an innate sense of iron will.

By Veteran’s day a year later, Diane had begun gathering data and making speeches about the lack of inclusion of women’s efforts in the war.   Fellow nurses reached out to other women veterans.   A movement had been created.  But it was going to be a battle like Diane had never experienced.

Assessing the situation, Diane determined that the pulse in Washington was not good.  There was an overwhelming misogynist attitude toward successful women on Capitol Hill.   She was told that the wall and the statue of men  was universal and meant to represent all who served.   That simply would not do.

Five years after the Vietnam War memorial wall was established and a statue created of three men, Diane lobbied congress at the Commission on Fine Arts in 1987 with a league of women to ensure that the efforts of the 265,000 women who served during the war were not forgotten.    Their request was voted down, 4 to 1.

Diane noticed that nearly all of the statues in Washington recognized the efforts of great men.    Where were the women?  Women needed to be a part of the visual history or our future generations would not see, acknowledge and ask the right questions.   Using every skill taught to her as a nurse, Diane forged on.  In Vietnam, giving up was never an option.   Neither was letting the service of thousands of women be forgotten.    Her persistence paid off.

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial  Project  forged on.   They knew they needed legislation in hand to achieve their goal.  Diane and her team began lobbying Congress, garnering support from Senator Edward Kennedy.   At the final hearing, in 1988 Diane finally got the validation she was working for from Congress.

Her resounding argument, quoting the Commemorative Works Act, was a single question:

“Is not the selfless service of 265,000 women, all volunteers, who served during the Vietnam era around the world, 10,000 of them—the majority of whom were nurses—in Vietnam under grave and life-threatening conditions, saving the lives of 350,000 American soldiers, of the greatest historical significance and worthy of this nation’s eternal gratitude?” 

It was a question that congress could not ignore.   On November 28, 1989, President George Bush signed legislation authorizing Area 1, the central monumental core of the Capital City, the site for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.  Congress had voted unanimously to allow creation of the memorial, on the sacred ground between Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.   The memorial was created and dedicated on November 11, 1993 – eleven years after the Vietnam Wall.

So where is our Belle of Steel now?   She’s still doing what she does best.   Educating others about woman’s service in Vietnam.    Archiving and categorizing letters, data, and memoirs from the era.  She is happiest when motivating other women to succeed, whether in research, advocacy, or autonomy.

Her ongoing mission?

“ . . . let’s march for peace.  For in the end, it’s how much we want peace that will bring us peace. And it’s how much we truly care about each other that will heal those scars and prevail over the tragedy of war.”

She plans to retire soon, spend more time with her grandchildren, and work on a memoir detailing the nuances of her compelling journey.    AgeView Press congratulates, Diane Carlson Evans . . . Bell of Steel # 4;  an outstanding beacon and activist for women.