The Air Force had promoted fighter pilot Martha McSally to lieutenant colonel four years before her peers.

She had flown more than 100 combat hours in her A-10, known as the Warthog. She affectionally called it “an ugly

down-and-dirty tank killer” with its single seat and its fast-firing Gatling gun.

She was a champion triathlete. She had a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, and she’d been a White House Fellows finalist. She had patrolled the no-fly zone over Iraq and would later direct search-and-rescue missions inside Afghanistan.

She was quite a success story for the modern military, which had worked hard to knock down barriers to female achievement.

Then she landed at Prince Sultan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia in November of 2000.

Exactly what that would mean for McSally became clear immediately. In a briefing right after she arrived, officers matter-of-factly laid down the rules for travel off base, even on official business: All female personnel would wear the customary head-to-toe gown, the abaya and its matching head scarf, similar to the Afghan burqa. They could not drive. They would ride in the back seat. They would be escorted by males at all times.

Officials said they had constructed the policy to keep from offending conservative Saudi leaders and to protect U.S. troops from terrorist attacks. But to McSally, the directive, with its different instructions for men and women, “abandons our American values that we all raised our right hand to die for.”

Since 1995, long before her deployment to the country, McSally had been fighting inside the system to change the abaya rule. She raised “legitimate questions in a very tactful way,” says former Air Force secretary Whit Peters.

For that first ride in Saudi Arabia, the officer followed orders. In the dead of night, she put on the black gown, covered her head with the scarf and climbed into the back of a Chevy Suburban with dark windows, while her military inferiors, men in jeans and collared shirts, sat up front.

Last month, she sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, contending that the abaya policy is unconstitutional because it discriminates against women and violates their religious freedom by forcing them to adopt the garb of another faith. The suit seeks no monetary damages.

Her cause has support from an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal feminists.

“What makes this particularly bizarre,” says Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), one of five Republican senators who has pushed the Defense Department to junk the policy, “is that we are waging a war in Afghanistan to remove those abayas, and the very soldiers who are conducting that war have to cover up.”

In a letter to Rumsfeld, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) wrote, “It is unconscionable that our own U.S. government should uphold this institutionalized disrespect of women by requiring that Americans conform to these standards.” The policy is “gross discrimination,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. The National Coalition of Women’s Organizations also has lobbied Rumsfeld.

The policy, which affects about 1,000 women stationed in the theater, is “on people’s radar, and they are dealing with it,” says Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

By turns scrappy and cheery, blunt and eloquent, the Air Force’s highest-ranking female fighter pilot has become a rare voice of dissent as the military carries out its missions in regions requiring much diplomatic delicacy. McSally, 35, is speaking up for civil liberties when the nation seems ready to submerge them in service to the perceived greater good.

“Believe me,” she says, “the last thing I ever wanted to do was make a big deal about being a woman. . . . As an officer, you need to shut up and follow when an order is lawful. You need to step out when it’s unlawful.”

Now, she knows, her military career may go down in flames.

Dress Code Back in the states on leave, McSally stands at a lectern in the gym at National Cathedral School. Before her are about 200 girls of the upper school, many of them in flannel pajama bottoms for “school spirit week.” They are privileged and achieving girls, who expect life will include fine SAT scores and excellent colleges and creature comforts. It will not likely include basic training and barking sergeants and enemy evasion training in some parched scrubland.

So they are frankly curious about the fighter pilot, who wears a deep purple suit, gray pearl earrings and a small American flag pin in her lapel. She looks normal enough, neither like a rebel nor like some military robot type. She is small, with freckles dusting her nose and bangs brushing her brows. Her shoulder-length brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail.

When she walks in her heels, she clomps a little, her shoulders leading her feet, maybe from all those hours hunched over the cockpit controls.

When she talks, she uses the language of the girls who are now listening to her.

When her father died of a heart attack when she was 12, “it rocked my world,” says McSally. “I got in a lot of trouble.”

When she got an “incentive ride,” the jet spin or two the Air Force offers to wow its cadets, “I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ “

The girls do not fidget. When McSally mentions having to ride in the back seat of the car in Saudi Arabia, two of the students make faces at each other. “Eeeuuww,” one says softly.

A biology major and a swimmer at the Air Force Academy, McSally has applied the careful reasoning of a scientist and the persistent discipline of an athlete to research the policy that vexes her. She tells the girls that in seven years of studying the question, she has found no rational reasons for the U.S. rules governing female troops’ behavior in Saudi Arabia.

McSally’s own story is a reflection of her nation’s fragile, complicated and often contradictory relationship with Saudi Arabia. The world’s largest oil producer is an ally as well as the homeland of Osama bin Laden and perhaps eight of the Sept. 11 hijackers. It is a fundamentalist Islamic monarchy with a human rights record the State Department regards as “generally poor,” according to a report last February. Early and enthusiastic backers of the ultra-puritan Taliban, the Saudis also keep a bon vivant of an ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who hobnobs on the sidelines with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

There is much history here that the NCS girls may not know.

Somewhere in this muddle is the rationale for keeping female military personnel literally under wraps. “We were putting our own women officers in a role counter to the prevailing culture,” says Peters, who was secretary of the Air Force in 1998 and 1999, “and while we insisted [to the Saudis] that women be dealt with like male officers, it was a question of not aggravating a situation that was a strain.” Female air traffic controllers worked at Prince Sultan, for example, but Saudi pilots often refused to talk to them.

McSally has no questions about the importance of the U.S. mission there. “We’re protecting their interests, as well as our own,” she says to the students.

Then she lays out her arguments to them: The State Department does not require its female employees to wear the abaya. Nor does the Saudi government insist, at least not formally. Wives of military personnel stationed there do not have to wear the garment. Nor was there an abaya rule for our military women when the Iraqis invaded neighboring Kuwait and U.S. troops drove them out. Furthermore, the policy specifically forbids male military personnel from wearing traditional Saudi garb.

McSally has a solution: Women would wear loose-fitting, modest shirts and long skirts that would cover them, in deference to local mores.

She tells the NCS students that the regulations have an insidious way of creeping into the on-base military culture, reintroducing the idea of women as subservient to men to an organization that worked hard to throw off those stereotypes.

The NCS girls ask smart and tough questions. They hunt for compromise. They question her timing. “In this time of heightened hostility, isn’t this a safety issue?” one asks. “I recently heard about force protection.”

McSally asks them to envision the scenario the policy outlines -- an American woman covered head to toe in black, surrounded in downtown Riyadh by studly blond guys in crew cuts and jeans. “We hardly blend in,” she says with a broad smile, and everybody cracks up at the image.

Here in America, another girl ventures, we accept people from other countries and don’t disrespect those peoples’ cultures. “So isn’t it a question of respect, for you to not adopt their dress?” she asks.

“Here’s the difference,” parries McSally. “We let them choose to wear whatever they wish. When you value people, you give them freedom. That is who we are.”

The military she loves has stripped her of that choice, McSally suggests. She is an observant Christian required against her will to represent herself as an adherent of a religion, Islam, which is not her own. Her attorneys, who have been hired by the Rutherford Institute, best known for its role in Paula Jones’s suit against President Clinton, contend the abaya policy violates her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.

“If it were in our national security to deploy to South Africa under apartheid, would we have found it acceptable or customary to segregate African American soldiers from other American soldiers, and say, ‘It’s just a cultural thing?’ “ McSally asks. “I don’t think so. I would hope not.

“When those customs and values conflict with ones that our Constitution is based on, and that women and men in uniform died for in the past, that is where you draw the line.”

When McSally finishes, the girls give her a standing ovation.

‘Make Me Proud’ She was bad in high school.

Or, she was as bad as she could be and still captain the track team and graduate first in her class at St. Mary’s Bay View Academy in Riverside, R.I.

“Martha was always on the edge of the school rules with the nuns,” says her brother, Mark, a lawyer in Providence.

She was the youngest of five, and her daddy doted on her. He was a successful lawyer and local politician, and when he died just shy of his 50th birthday, McSally stormed into adolescence armed with anger and grief. In the few brief hours she had between her father’s heart attack and his death, he told her, “Make me proud.”

That has driven her life.

“I guess I set up my own challenges,” McSally recalls now, during an interview in a New York hotel. “I was trying to be the best of the best, and the worst of the worst, and it was exhausting.” She laughs. She laughs a lot.

She and her friends would run around for hours. They would go home and pass out. She would put on a pot of coffee and stay up finishing some paper. When she graduated from high school, she gave her mother a trophy.

Her family was stunned when Martha decided to go to the Air Force Academy. “She was always a really driven and focused individual, but given her outspokenness and her independence, we weren’t sure she’d make it there,” says Mark McSally. “My mother’s feeling was relief, because she knew where she was going to be for the next four years, and it would be under stricter control.”

So off Martha went to Colorado Springs. First, she cut her hair shorter than the Air Force would have. “Part of the program is taking you down and removing your identity and building you back up the way they want you,” says McSally. “And I figured, okay, if you’re gonna take away my identity, I’m gonna do it first.” She showed up wearing high-top sneakers, tight black dance pants and a T-shirt printed with a plane and the word “Kamikaze.”

“I was pretty naive,” she says, laughing again.

During her sophomore year, influenced by her swim team coach, she began “growing and learning and knowing God. . . . It seemed to me this could heal me from grief and loss. And I was making sense of the world by achieving, and there was an emptiness there. I think there is a longing in everyone for a personal relationship with God.”

McSally never planned on being a pilot. She was prone to motion sickness. But she began hanging out in the flying squadron, and she got her joy rides, and -- partly because it wasn’t open to her -- she decided to be a fighter pilot. At 5-foot-3, she was an inch too short to fly for the Air Force, period. She fought for two years at the academy to get a waiver.

“I think the colonel got sick of me coming to his office every week, asking why I had been rejected again,” she says. He designed a series of tests that allowed her to prove that her leg muscles, honed in marathons, were just as strong as those of approved pilots.

Then she broke her hand, which was set improperly. After two hand surgeries and after graduating 25th in her class from the academy and finishing graduate school, she entered flight training, four years after she had applied.

In 1993, when the military opened up combat positions for women, McSally was one of seven female officers picked by the Air Force to fly combat planes. That same year, she won the military division of the Hawaii Ironman World Triathlon Championship, a grueling event that combines a 26.2-mile footrace, a 112-mile bike race and a 2.4-mile ocean swim.

McSally flies a fighter with only a titanium tub between pilot and antiaircraft fire. After her sorties over Iraq, she was made an instructor, training the A-10 pilots deployed to Kosovo. Up and up her career climbed. In her most recent deployment in Saudi Arabia, she served as principal adviser to the commander of the joint task force’s search-and-rescue operation in Southwest Asia, with responsibility for planning, training, readiness and execution. If you’re a pilot in trouble in Afghanistan, McSally’s unit comes to get you, most recently picking up crews of a downed helicopter and a B1.

Up until the spring, when she went public in a USA Today interview with her dissent over the abaya and related policies, McSally had received uniformly exemplary evaluations as a “top leader and warrior.” Pointing out her strong commitment to speaking to dozens of community and student groups, her commanders praised her as “an ambassador for the military,” she now notes.

Most recently, says McSally, she has received “a tremendous amount of negative feedback” from her chain of command in Saudi Arabia. “When they write up my search-and-rescue command,” she says, “they say nothing but great things, but they say that my choices [in speaking out] were unprofessional and that I have been a bad example to the young troops.”

While Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, says McSally has “done a very good job of making her case in a very respectful and conscientious manner,” the officer herself is not sure what her future will be in the Air Force. She is committed for two more years.

“Is this the end? I don’t know. I hope not,” she says. “I try not to think about it.”

Sweat Pants in the Desert Here’s what can happen to a military policy.

When McSally first was stationed in Kuwait, in 1995, female troops had to wear baggy sweat pants when out of uniform on base.

“I would sit in my little room, watching all the guys out playing volleyball in their shorts,” she says. “It demeaned me. We were supposed to keep fit, and we would go on these long runs in the 130-degree heat in the desert, and we would be totally dehydrated.” She appealed to her commander. He sympathized, but he couldn’t get the rule budged.

One day, she spoke at a Christian women’s retreat, and mentioned the challenge of dealing with the sweat-pants rule. A week later, the Army general in charge of the joint force summoned her into her commander’s office. “My wife was very intrigued when she heard you speak,” the general said. He wanted to know about her complaints.

She looked at her commander. “Go ahead,” he said.

Tentatively, she explained the hardship.

“Next morning, it was changed like that!” says McSally, and she snaps her fingers. The women could wear shorts, just like the men. She thanked the general.

“Hey, no problem,” he said. “I just wish I had known about it sooner.”

“That’s important,” says McSally, “because that became a sort of guiding example for me.”

After seven years of buttonholing brass on the Saudi policy, she gave up working within the system and filed the lawsuit. “She is not doing this for herself,” says John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, “but to see that everybody is treated fairly. This is a heroic act, because it places her in jeopardy.”

McSally sees herself as dutiful.

“We can respect their customs,” she says. “We don’t need to impose their values and faith on us.”

She recites her oath of military service: “I, Martha Elizabeth McSally, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.”

“That is what my loyalty is to,” she says, to the Constitution of the United States. “And my hope would be that they will say about this policy, ‘Here, it’s changing.’ And I will say, ‘God Bless America.’ “