Female Pilots Get Their Shot in the Iraqi Skies

Capt. Sarah Piro flies the Kiowa helicopter on combat missions in support of ground troops.
Capt. Sarah Piro flies the Kiowa helicopter on combat missions in support of ground troops. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

TALL AFAR, Iraq -- Buzzing over this northern Iraqi city in her Kiowa scout helicopter, a .50-caliber machine gun and rockets at the ready, Capt. Sarah Piro has proved so skillful in combat missions to support U.S. ground troops that she's earned the nickname "Saint."

In recent months of fighting in Tall Afar, Piro, 26, of El Dorado Hills, Calif., has quietly sleuthed out targets, laid down suppressive fire for GIs in battle and chased insurgents through the narrow alleys of this medieval city -- maneuvering all the while to avoid being shot out of the sky. In one incident, she limped back to base in a bullet-riddled helicopter, ran to another aircraft and returned to the fight 10 minutes later.

"They call her 'Saint Piro' -- she's just that good," said her co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Todd Buckhouse, a 19-year Army veteran who has worked with Piro on two tours with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq.

"There was no one I wanted to hear more on a raid than her. She's a spectacular Army aviator," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer of the regiment, which is returning home this month.

Female helicopter pilots like Piro are demonstrating their valor in Iraq in one of the few direct combat roles women are officially allowed to perform in the military. Their missions often put them at risk of being hit by enemy machine-gun fire and rockets, and require them to shoot back. Piro's unit, Outlaw Troop, lost three of its eight Kiowas after insurgents shot them down over Tall Afar, and four or five others were hit by enemy fire, U.S. officers said. On Piro's first tour in Iraq, her wingman hit a wire and crashed into the Euphrates River. She and Buckhouse made an emergency landing and jumped into the water to try to save the two aviators, but they had already perished.

Despite the dangers, a growing number of women have chosen the job since the 1990s, and today about 9 percent of women in the Army are aviators. There are four female pilots in Piro's troop of 33 soldiers. "I didn't want to be a staff officer. I wanted to be an operator," said Capt. Monica Strye, 29, of San Antonio, commander of Outlaw Troop. "I wanted to have more of a combat role."

But while proving their competence in the air, female aviators say they still face obstacles from the predominantly male military on the ground. "It's far better than when my mother was in the military, but we still have a long ways to go," said Strye, whose mother was an Army nurse in Vietnam. "I know I constantly have to prove myself."

And even as the 360-degree battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are exposing women to combat as never before, policies excluding women from ground combat units have not been eased, but instead face increased scrutiny in Congress.

Under a law signed last month, the Defense Department must submit to Congress this year a report on the assignment of women, particularly in the Army, to ensure compliance with existing Pentagon policy, which was also codified by the law. The law requires that before opening any new positions to women, the Defense Department must tell Congress what justifies the change and observe a 30-day waiting period.

The legislation, while greatly watered down from earlier versions that would have rolled back opportunities for women, still limits the Pentagon's flexibility in adjusting to new wartime realities, critics say. It was passed over the objections of Pentagon leaders, including Army Secretary Francis Harvey, who said the change was not necessary. "We have opinions on the law, but it's now the law and we will abide by it," Harvey said in an interview last month.

Congressional critics say the change sends the wrong message to women in the military, especially the thousands now serving in Iraq. Women make up about 15 percent of the active-duty members in the military. Tens of thousands of women have served in Iraq; 48 have been killed and more than 350 wounded in action, according to Pentagon figures.

At Outlaw Troop's base outside Tall Afar, the flight line hummed with aircraft coming and going around the clock. Piro, Strye and other pilots fly demanding six- to eight-hour missions in full body armor.

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