© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From Flying Jets To Running For Office: Former Marine Pilot Amy McGrath Dreams Big In 'Honor Bound'

Amy McGrath (Courtney Daniel)
Amy McGrath (Courtney Daniel)

When Amy McGrath was growing up in Kentucky in the 1980s, she had one dream: to become a fighter pilot.

At the time, women weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but she kept pursuing her goal. She went to the U.S. Naval Academy, Marine boot camp, and eventually became the first female Marine to fly a combat mission in a F/A-18. She served in Iraq and in Afghanistan, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Then she turned to politics, running for a Kentucky congressional seat in 2018, then running to unseat Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2020. She lost both races.

As she writes in her new memoir, “Honor Bound: An American Story of Dreams And Service,” McGrath’s journey started in seventh grade when she was assigned a research project in American history.

She chose to focus on World War II aircraft, and while exploring the topic, she says she “sort of fell in love” with a different kind of machine not used in World War II — fighter jets.

“I researched everything I possibly could on that and found out relatively quickly that there were no women doing these jobs — and I really didn’t understand why,” she recalls. “I was about 12 years old and I thought to myself, ‘That’s a really cool job. Why are there no women doing this?’ ”

The federal Combat Exclusion Policy excluded women from combat positions. So young McGrath decided to do something about it: She wrote a letter to her representative in Congress.

Her conservative congressman responded — she still has the letter — and said “there’s lots of other things you can do in the military, but this is not one of them, so go do something else,” she remembers.

The unsatisfying answer motivated McGrath to remain persistent in her efforts to contact other lawmakers. She says she wrote to her senators and every member of the House and Senate Armed Service Committee.

In the meantime, she worked diligently at school and got into the Naval Academy, all while hoping Congress would do something about the combat exclusion rule. Finally, 17-year-old McGrath says she “got lucky” when a slew of women were elected into office in 1992, and the combat exclusion for women in aviation positions was lifted shortly afterward.

“All the doors” opened for her just in the nick of time, she says.

During her time in the Naval Academy and Marine Corps boot camp, she encountered men who felt that standards were being lowered for women. She says she always had to prove herself — whether it was flying the jet, landing it on the back of an aircraft carrier at night or seamlessly dropping bombs on target.

“If you can do those things, you will be accepted,” she says. “What I love about the military is that, by and large, the men that I served with, that’s what they cared about most — performance and honor.”

McGrath completed combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She writes in her memoir that she began to have reservations about the U.S. military role in both countries.

The Iraq War served as “a big turning point” in her life, she explains. At first, she and her squadron believed they were fighting for the right cause — until they learned the reasons behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq were “a lie,” she says. Iraq didn’t hold weapons of mass destruction and wasn’t the threat that they were portrayed to be, she says.

“For the first time really in American history, we started a war,” she says, “and I was a part of that.”

She felt disillusioned by Operation Iraqi Freedom and her part in it: As a Marine fighter pilot, she conducted airstrikes in Iraq. “It took a long time, many years, to think that through,” she says.

Afghanistan isn’t a black-and-white situation, McGrath says. During her second tour in the country, a fellow Marine who she worked closely with died — “and I couldn’t tell you why he died,” she says. Her reservations became evident by the fact she didn’t truly understand what the U.S. was trying to accomplish in Afghanistan.

She has mixed feelings about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. She feels responsible to those who helped U.S. troops, such as Afghan translators, and would like to see Afghan women have freedom and rights, she says.

“At the same time, it is a culture in a country that is so different from ours and we’re just not going to be able to give them a Jeffersonian democracy,” she says. “I feel like, in many cases, our staying there has not been helpful.”

McGrath served an impressive military career — she garnered about 2,000 flight hours and flew on more than 85 combat missions. She also got married, started a family, and then pivoted to politics.

Despite her two losses in the 2018 and 2020 elections, she doesn’t have a single regret.

With her background in the Marines, McGrath says she felt it to her core that she was an ideal candidate to lead.

“Our country needed — and still needs — strong Americans of character to stand up and fight for our country and do the hard things,” she says. Some of those challenges are running for office amid an extremely polarized political environment, she says.

While she’s unsure about another political campaign in the future, she is dedicated to helping others rise up and run for office — specifically in places where they can make a difference. She started a not-for-profit organization called Honor Bound that will help women veterans dive into the political arena.

Showing commitment to our country means taking action every day, she says.

“One of the things about my journey and my story is that this is a long fight and I feel like right now we still need to keep fighting in terms of protecting our democracy,” she says. “Patriotism right now is not giving up — that’s my story.”

Emiko Tamagawa and Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: Honor Bound

By Amy McGrath

Chapter 1

Even as a young girl, I knew that my mother’s beeper signaled something incredibly important. She wore the beeper when it was her turn to be one of the pediatricians on call for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. My sister, brother, and I might be watching The Muppet Show while my mom made her wonderful spaghetti sauce, the enticing smell filling the house. She liked to sing as she cooked, adding a cheery background to dinnertime. Suddenly the shrill alarm of the beeper would shatter the pleasant calm.

Mom would turn the beeper off and call the hospital using the wall phone in the kitchen. She’d stretch the spiraled phone cord to move as far from us as possible and hear the person on the other end clearly. Even so, Dad would say, “Turn it down. Mom’s got a beep. She’s on the phone!” We went quiet in an instant. We knew it was serious business.

She would hang up and, many times, head out to the hospital. In my young mind I envisioned her rushing to the bedside of a sick child suffering a dire medical emergency. Dad would take over cooking, and we would go back to watching TV. Still, it would linger, the same thought every time: “Wow, my mom is important. She’s going to go save a life right now.” It was my earliest brush with how service to others translated to action. My mother was a healer, had chosen to be a doctor. People—children—counted on her. She took that obligation to heart.

She was my strongest influence and most powerful role model. Mom, the oldest of eight kids, had been struck with polio when she was ten years old. She survived, but the disease left her with a leg that was largely useless. She drag-limped it as she walked. Regardless, she refused to let it stop her or even slow her down. She exemplified the determination of pure will. At a point in history when few women even went to college, my mom went to medical school and became a pediatrician.

I’m sure there were days when she would have loved to let that call go, to ignore the beeper. Times when she was tired from a long day of seeing patients, checking homework, and reining in three kids. There must have been evenings when all she wanted was to sit down on the sofa, take a breath, and stare out the window. That is surely true, but I never once heard my mom complain. Not about the beeper, her work, or her leg. She had important things to do, and those things required sacrifices. She had made the choice to serve, and as far as she was concerned, there was no other option. You put your head down, and you got on with it.

That dedication was coupled with a keen mind. She has always been one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever known. She taught her children to constantly question the world around them. We were raised to always be respectful but never take anything at face value. She showed me that the only true limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves. Safe to say I would never have so tenaciously pursued my dream of being a fighter pilot had she not been such an example of possibility realized.

Her immense inner strength, quick mind, faith, and love of family were deep values she shared with my father. They were both compassionate, strong people of durable religious belief, faithful but forever intellectually curious.

My mom was short and huggable, with a beautiful smile. Dad was a sturdy man whom people knew they could lean on for support. He, too, had immense inner strength matched by a physical heartiness. He was built thick and strong, with a laborer’s beefy hands. He had brown curly, almost frizzy hair and an unruly beard and mustache that framed a quick and infectious smile. He loved a good practical joke. He once parked our station wagon down the street while we were asleep and replaced it in the garage with a look-alike toy car. He told my five-year-old brother, Matt, that the car had shrunk and tried to contain his laughter as Matt’s eyes grew wide. It was his lighter side, and his eyes often danced behind the Coke-bottle lenses of his glasses as he looked for an opportunity to have some fun at our expense.

He loved people and enjoyed life. He was also one of the most gregarious people you might ever meet. Visitors to our home would barely get their coats off before they had a beer in their hand and my father was coaxing a story out of them.

That didn’t mean he lacked a serious side. Like my mom, he was a person of service and faith. He was particularly passionate about knowledge—increasing his own and helping others learn. He taught English for forty years at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati. He carefully balanced the striking contradictions in his life, the rigorous pursuit of empirical wisdom and the leap of faith involved in his Catholic beliefs. He had once been a seminarian and an aspiring priest. Though he’d given up that path, it didn’t temper the flame of religious devotion that burned inside him. He embraced it with a New Testament joy and compassion. I never heard him proselytize, and he rarely talked about Catholic doctrine at all. He simply lived his faith. He studied his Bible and went to church—with the family in tow—every Sunday without fail and on holy days throughout the year.

Excerpted from Honor Bound by Amy McGrath with Chris Peterson Copyright © 2021 by Amy McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.