AH-1 Super Cobra, image Wikipedia

She’s Got Grit: Hard-Earned Lessons from a USMC Cobra pilot (tracers were the easy part)


Each of Jeannette Haynie’s three kids have flown in a Marine Corps aircraft, even if in utero: her two girls in a Cobra attack helicopter and her son in the C-12. That’s something she’s proud of, though she has much more to her story.

Haynie has always known what she wanted. Coming from a family living in New Orleans “under the flight path” and an all-girls Catholic school where 75% of the graduating class went to LSU, she joined the Marine Corps (via the Naval Academy) because she wanted to “shock her parents,” she says with a laugh. Growing up she heard stories of her great-uncle George Dittmann who had died at Iwo Jima. “Private First Class Dittmann was present for the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, but just over two weeks later, he was killed” she writes in a USNI blog. With this kind of family history, she requested Marine Option as soon as she had the chance at the Naval Academy.

Haynie did not grow up as an athlete at all. “I was kind of a dork,” she says. But she took up running in high school, tried out the long jump and the triple jump her senior year, and walked on to the track team at the Naval Academy during her plebe summer.

“I knew I liked to run long distances but I didn’t know I was fast,” she said.

By her sophomore year she had made the traveling team.

“The majority of women in track and XC ended up going Marine Option,” she said. “But it wasn’t guaranteed — there were usually around 250 people requesting for 150 slots.”

Haynie also knew she wanted to fly Cobras, but hadn’t realized when she entered the Academy that the combat exclusion clause was still in place which meant that women were not permitted to fly attack aircraft.

Unanticipated challenges

At the Academy, other challenges emerged, too, of a kind she wasn’t anticipating and which have taken her years to fully process.

One night while at the Academy, she woke at 3 AM to see a man (a fellow student) sitting at the end of her bed with his hand on her leg. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incident.

Despite these unexpected obstacles, Haynie still pushed for Marine Corps aviation. “People say that Cobra pilots eat their young,” she says. “I wanted to do it because it was the toughest community.”

Coming from the Academy, Haynie had a very strong peer group, all showing up to flight school within a few months of each other. Even so, “there were instructor pilots who were afraid to fly with a woman. And every time I climbed into the cockpit with a new instructor he would comment that it was the first time he had flown with a woman.”

Haynie came off a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment) in SE Asia in 2002, and was the only female pilot in her squadron when the war in Iraq kicked off in 2003.

For the deployment, “I asked if I could just stay I the guys tent,” she says. “We’d coordinate with each other when to get dressed.”

The arrangement didn’t last long.

“After two days, the XO (Executive Officer) came and told me I had to leave because the CO’s (Commander’s) wife back in the states was upset,” she says. “I ended up having to stay all the way across base with a tent full of enlisted women. I missed out on time with friends and on flight planning, too.”

It was the early days of the war. “We were part of the push up past Baghdad before the insurgency started,” she says.

Haynie in the front seat of her Marine Cobra attack helicopter

What’s it’s like to see a tracer

Haynie flew her Cobra helicopter armed with varied combinations of Hellfire missiles, TOW missiles, 20 mm, and 2.75” rockets.

“My first night flight in Iraq, we went up the east side of Baghdad,” she says. “Under night vision goggles, I could see tracers coming at us, and realized they were real…I had to just not think about it, just take a few deep breaths.”

I ask what her initial thoughts were? She laughs. “Holy shit, that’s what a tracer looks like,” she says.

“My mind convinced me it wasn’t really what was happening, that maybe I was dreaming,” she says. The tracers were just a beginning, as her co-pilot saw a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fly over the cockpit.

“We went wherever we were needed,” she says. “They’d put you on an Air Tasking Order and you were on.”

Some missions they flew night vision goggles, some scoping convoy routes, others “chasing trucks around,” she says. “The more difficult missions were flying under NVGs (night vision goggles) under low light…flying over Al Kut or the other urban areas, trying to find the bad guys without knowing the buildings. There were challenging nights landing in the sand in brown outs, too.”

The war wasn’t her most difficult flying though. After Iraq she was deployed on another MEU in the Pacific.

“We were flying off the coast of Guam off a Navy ship,” she says. “There were storms all around us. I was flying with a lieutenant who was a new Cobra pilot. We had been flying for a while under goggles, and then coming back to the ship, we were flying through rainstorms, flying instruments at 300 feet above the water. Both of us started getting vertigo. We transferred controls 15–20 times when one of us would have vertigo. I kept having to turn without any reference. That’s the closest I’ve come to dying on a flight,” she says.

Sometimes you have to fake it

Haynie doesn’t feel like she was a natural leader. “I struggled for a long time. I would have loved to have stayed in operations, just doing my thing, but I was put into maintenance after a couple of years.

I had a confidence issue, especially knowing I was being judged by my gender as well as my performance. I thought that asking questions would be a sign of weakness, but I needed to know information.”

The biggest challenges, though, were still to come.

Though initially she and her husband didn’t plan to have children, Haynie gave birth to her daughter in 2005. Her husband had back-to-back deployments to Iraq while she struggled to single parent and continue working and flying.

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Trying to find balance

“I came face-to-face with the deeply embedded expectation that I was useless, written off,” she says. Child care didn’t support squadron working hours, either.

“I had to drop off my 6- week old baby at daycare at 6:30 in the morning and get to the office 45 minutes before anyone else in the same week my husband deployed to OIF and Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans so my family, whom I had thought would come to help, was evacuated,” she says. “I’d be at the office earlier than anyone else but would have to leave twenty minutes early because of childcare,” she says. “There was one colonel who would look over and say ‘must be nice to be walking out so early,’ every day.”

The unit wasn’t supportive in other ways either.

“Childcare while flying nights was really challenging,” she said. “I had a system set up to fly nights once a week, but operations would keep changing the schedule.”

“I was painfully aware that there were no senior women, there were no mentors. I felt like I was failing as a woman, as a mother, and as a Marine. It was the story for a lot of us.”

“Something had to give,” she says. Haynie describes her decision as less of a decision than it was the only viable option. She left for the Reserves and began flying C-12s.

Haynie reaches twenty years in the Marines and Marine Corps reserves next May.

“By 2018, my husband and I will have been married for 19 years and geographically separated for 9.5 of them,” she says.

Most recently her husband was transferred to another base while she had one year left to complete her PhD program.

Jeanette Haynie, photo wiisglobal.org

“The regulations have allowances for the education of children, but nothing for the education of spouses,” she says. When the couple applied to retain their higher living allowance for one year where she was completing her PhD, her husband’s commander denied it saying, “Did anyone make your wife join a PhD program?”

Advice to young leaders

With a career full of hard decisions and challenging experiences, Haynie has a lot of advice for new leaders starting out.

“1) Don’t be afraid to ask questions or look stupid. Ask the damn questions.

2) Keep your eyes open and trust your instincts.

3) The emperor has no clothes — don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

4) You are smarter and stronger than you think — just because the guys around you are talking loudly that doesn’t mean they know anything. Push yourself to step out.

5) Bias exists. Don’t fear it — just learn to see it and work through it. Don’t let it stop you.”

She also echoes the advice of many women across the Grit Project in looking to senior leaders for lessons. “Young officers need to also watch senior officers and senior enlisted as an apprentice would. There are so many negatives and positives to learn if you let yourself.”

When I ask Haynie what she is most proud of, she looks at a recent experience as the culmination of her two decades of service.

As part of a special Marine Corps Task Force, Haynie found the courage to speak up in opposition to a particularly inflammatory comment in a room full of more senior officers, earning her the respect of all in the room.

A few weeks later she was specifically requested to handle a special project for Marine Corps leadership. Others present at the meeting began to email and indicate their support, too.

“It wasn’t just my Marine Corps experience that got me to the place where I was willing to speak up, she says. “It was a combination of that with my personal and academic experience, too.”

Haynie writes for the United States Naval Institute blog, where she isn’t afraid to take on the hard issues in her writing, either.

Building struggle builds grit

In one blog post she explores ways that grit can be developed, saying “I believe that we can teach grit, and we can do it by building struggle into school, work, and daily tasks in imaginative ways. We can ensure that young people are allowed the gift of failure, a gift that for most of us will keep on giving. And we can expand our ideas of learning, fully embracing the wealth of information available to people today.”

As to her own sense of grit, she says with humility that it was “a combination of ignorance and sheer stupidity — I just can’t imagine quitting.”

You can imagine she’s a fan of (and great example of) grit herself.

“When I think of Americans with grit, I think of Louis Zamperini, Anne Hutchinson, James Stockdale, and Sojourner Truth. I think of people like my great-grandmother, who successfully raised seven kids (two of them severely disabled) during the Depression. Grit reminds me of families surviving the Great Depression, the Johnstown Flood, or Hurricane Camille, through extreme suffering and severe hardship, even when all hope has been taken from them. Grit tells of men and women facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles yet digging in and persevering, pushing hard in the face of incredible odds and demonstrating courage even in the face of death.”

Haynie has also taken control of her own story, despite incredible frustration.

“Right now I’m again solo-parenting (the USMC moved my husband to Norfolk this past summer), only now I have three kids and am teaching at GWU while finishing my dissertation for my PhD and also drilling at the Pentagon. It sucks but I’ll finish and then I will take over the world. I think my stubbornness helps and will get me out of this mess and help me complete the degree. My attitude has been that I had to leave active duty but I haven’t really walked away, and one day I will be in a position to make decisions that use the training and education I’m getting.”

She is already doing exactly that with her teaching and her writing, as well as an Outdoor Leadership school for kids she and her husband developed, and she’s excited to find out what’s next. For her, it’s clear: the sky is the limit.


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Haynie and her husband at the inaugural session of the Outdoor Leadership School for kids

More advice and recommendations from Haynie:

“Read! Learn! Teach yourself to think critically,” Haynie advises. Her favorite books?

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand— idealistic but oh, so damn good and critical to read

Overwhelmed, Brigid Shulte — because it fits with my life and gives me ways to push back

Half the Sky, Kristof and DuWunn — because it was my first taste of righteous anger and indignation

Virgins, Caryl Rivers — because it described my life in college and high school

City of Refuge,Tom Piazza — because I love New Orleans

First They Killed My Father, Loung Eng — because we are damn lucky to live where we live, and it could always happen.



Shannon H. Polson, Author, Veteran and Founder

LEADERSHIP. GRIT. PURPOSE. The Grit Factor AVAILABLE NOW: https://amzn.to/2GJOnJw Founder: thegritinstitute.com Committed to veterans and women in leadership.