By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Growing up in Kansas, Sally Murphy said, she never thought of being a soldier. She would become a teacher, because that's what women did.
But that idea didn't take. And although many in her generation looked at images of the Vietnam War with repulsion, she saw something alluring. The thrill of combat. The wind-whipping whirl of the Army helicopters, touching down in an open field, carting away the wounded.
"There is something magical about helicopters," Murphy said. "There is something magical about aviation."
So she became a soldier. And when the Army announced that women could apply to flight school, she went for it, almost on a whim, she said. Besides, if she could become a soldier, a prospect that had seemed impossible a few years earlier, why not a pilot?
Murphy became the first woman to graduate from the Army's flight school at Fort Rucker, a milestone celebrated yesterday at Fort Myer in Arlington County.
Murphy, now 60 and living in Woodbridge, rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a colonel. Along the way, she became something of a legend, flying not only helicopters but also fixed-wing planes. At yesterday's ceremony, she was lauded as a groundbreaker who made progressing through the Army easier for the women who followed her.
During World War II and the Vietnam War, women were a small fraction of the armed services. Today, women make up about 15 percent of the force and serve in 91 percent of military specialties, including flying Black Hawks and serving as door gunners.
Last year, Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody became the first woman to become a four-star general. In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman since World War II to be awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat. And despite the Pentagon's ban on women serving directly in ground combat units, many have fought alongside their male counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- wars that have no front lines and that have redefined women's role in the military.
"They're out there, and they're doing their job under the same duress and distress as the men," said Judith Matteson, director of the U.S. Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee, Va. "Women are accepted in the military now."
Things were different in 1974, when Murphy went to flight school. She never dreamed she would ride in a helicopter, let alone learn how to fly one. On her first day, the officer in charge singled her out in front of the class: This is the first woman to go through flight school at Fort Rucker, he announced.
Some of her classmates immediately started to boo, she said.
"I thought maybe this was what they were talking about when they said it would be difficult," she said yesterday at the ceremony.
In addition to the boos she received at orientation, a captain once demanded to know what she was doing wearing a flight suit and accused her of making a mockery of it. "A lot of people died for that uniform," he barked at her.
Later, she learned that some civilian contractor flight instructors refused to train her. Still, she was never hazed, she said. And she never suffered any sexual harassment, only "sexual discrimination," she said, because of the policies that barred women from fighting alongside men on the ground.
After flight school, she married a Huey helicopter pilot who had served in Vietnam. They have a son, now a 29-year-old captain with the 82nd Airborne Division who has deployed once to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Her daughter-in-law is also a soldier and has served two tours in Iraq. In so doing, she has been part of a generation that has debunked the myth about women that Murphy had often been told: "You'll never deploy. You'll never see combat."