What You Can Learn About Grit from the First Female Aviator in the USMC

Marine Corps trailblazer, aviator and leader Sarah Deal Burrow in the cockpit of the CH-53E (Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan)

Sarah Deal Burrow joined the Marine Corps knowing she couldn’t fly. After growing up in a town of 1,000 outside of Toledo, Ohio, Deal grew up running cross country and track and playing basketball, raising a pig a year (one that she had to catch at a greased pig contest), and working on a dairy farm. She did 4-H for ten years and was heavily involved in her church youth group. “We had an annual drive your tractor to school day,” she remembers with a laugh.

She earned her pilot’s license for single and multi-engine commercial flight while in college at Kent State in Ohio, and competed on the precision flight team there.

The daughter of a Marine, Deal only looked briefly at the Army, but her parents convinced her brother’s girlfriend to talk her out of it. Her father discouraged the Marines. He thought it was too rough, too dangerous. “He was a Marine in the 50s when they still made trainees to pushups and pullups until they threw up,” Burrow laughs. “But I’d always wanted to join.”

Deal and friend Karen Fine Brasch, naval aviator on board the U.S.S. Nimitz

“I was hanging out at the airfield and ran into the Marine recruiters there,” she says. It didn’t take long for her to sign up, even though in 1992, though women had flown for the Navy two decades earlier, the Marines still weren’t permitting women in the cockpit.

Deal completed the Marine basic camp at Quantico, requested aviation maintenance and was assigned to aircraft control school.

“I was halfway through aircraft controller school when Les Aspin lifted the flight restrictions on women,” Deal remembers. She read about it in the newspaper, and holding the article in her hand, called Marine headquarters, and said “This is what I want to do.” After a short pause, she continues: “I can’t imagine what that Colonel must have thought about a little second lieutenant calling up and telling him she’d read something in the newspaper.”

She was given a lateral transfer and arrived in Pensacola. “It sucked,” she says, of arriving at flight school. “I was a loner. I had to be. People who had been my friends at basic were no longer my friends. There was a small group of us that had gone on weekend trips together, celebrated birthdays together.

“I saw one of them when I arrived at Pensacola, and said ‘Hey! Let’s go do something!’” Her friend looked at her and said “I can’t.” When she asked why, he said “It wouldn’t be right.”

She never talked to him again. “It was a really hurtful time,” she says. “I knew I was under the microscope, and that they were giving reports all the way back up to Marine Headquarters,” she says.

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Both the Navy and Coast Guard had a couple of women training when Deal was in Pensacola, and these women became friends (including Karen Fine Brasch, featured in last week’s Grit Profile). Deal also met her future husband while in flight training, an F14 Tomcat pilot who would later fly for United Airlines. The Marines wouldn’t send another woman to flight school for a full year after Deal arrived.

Deal qualified in rotary wing and was stationed flying the CH-53Es on the west coast flying cargo and troop resupply.

“Nobody wanted me assigned to them,” she says. “I found this out years later. Finally the commanding officer of my first unit said: is she a qualified pilot? I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman, send her this way.”

The positive experience of her first unit did not continue into subsequent assignments. On one assignment she was prepared to deploy to Kuwait less than a year after the birth of her twin boys. “I was part of a seven ship armada leaving from San Diego to fight the war,” she says.

The commanding officer decided to send her off the ship to take care of a rear detachment command. Just as the unit was preparing to redeploy, they called her back to ride the ship back to port.

Deal thought she’d lost her final opportunity to fly and do what she had trained to do in a real world scenario, and in the meantime had missed precious time with her very young twin boys.

Deal preflighting her USMC CH-53E

“I felt more like my boys’ aunt instead of their mom, as I saw pictures of them growing and wearing clothes and playing with toys I had not gotten for them. Even more difficult was when I returned home from deployment and my boys cried every time I tried to hold them,” she says. She decided to leave active duty for the reserves in order to have more time with her family.

Six years later, flying in the reserves with three children now at home, she deployed to the British base Camp Bastion in Afghanistan as part of the Marine Aviation Group 40. Their primary mission was to fly support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force. “We flew six to seven hour missions every day,” Burrow says. “We hauled generators, moved diplomats and POWs, transported ballots for the elections,” she says.

“We kind of got used to being shot at,” she said. At least with small arms fire.

On one flight Deal narrowly avoided being hit by a rocket propelled grenade. “It was scary as hell. I swear it was within our rotor arc.”

“The opportunity to do a true combat deployment and fly made everything worthwhile,” she said. “Finally I could do what I’d been training to do for so many years.”

Even so, the deployment wasn’t easy. The group commanding officer “was intolerable,” she says. “There were three squadrons on the flight line and he hated every one of us. He made our lives miserable.”

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Missions were schedules for six hours but frequently ran well over. One mission ran from a scheduled six hours, but “we had multiple mission changes, and by the time we finished we had eleven hours,” she says, “most of it flight time.”

Deal recalls one of her most difficult missions.

“On August 7th we took off for a routine mission we dropped off some Marines at a Cobra crash site for recovery effort and investigation then off to pick up some food and water externally. We were on our way into the Golf Company of 2/8’s zone to drop off the water and we had just checked in with the radio operator.

The first call was calm, but then you heard the panic and out breath Marine asking us to pick up two wounded Marines. One of them was a double amputee. They had stepped on an IED during a patrol along the Helmand River. Technically we were not supposed to pick up any casualties because there was another helicopter unit assigned that mission. But hearing that Marine on the radio frantically asking us if we would take his two Marines to the Hospital at Dwyer, the thought of saying no never occurred to us. We were only a minute from the pickup zone. We quickly dropped our load of food and swung around to find the location of the wounded. They popped smoke (a military marking technique in tactical conditions, releasing colored smoke into the air) and we landed, very close to where the IED had gone off in a make-shift landing zone and picked them up.

The young Marines were in really bad shape. Our corpsman on board did the best that he could to continue first aid and we flew directly to the aid station at Dwyer. When we landed the medics didn’t understand why we had landed, because casevac is not our mission, and so no one came to help. Our aircrew and corps carried both Marines off the helicopter.

I remember them not being able to hold the double amputee on the make-shift stretcher and dropping him in the sand. He seemed to look right at me. Finally we got the attention of the medics and they brought real stretchers over to help. We got the Marines off and I remember sitting there for a moment in silence. The other pilot asked the crew chief to clean all the blood off the deck in back. We still had to complete our mission and our next task was inserting more Marines. Later that day those 2 Marines died along with another one from Golf Company. Today I remember LCpl Dennis Burrow, LCpl Patrick Schimmel and LCpl Javier Olvera.”

Sarah Deal Burrow, USMC officer and aviator

Returning home wasn’t easy, either. After a year away, though her boys were older, Deal realized she had missed major milestones of all three of her children while deployed. She found herself having trouble sleeping. “Out of the blue, I feel like I overreact to a situation,” she says, “or respond more emotionally than usual.”

After her deployment, she left the squadron to find assignments permitting her to have more time with family. “Nothing beats a good, strong family,” she says. “A wonderful family and good friends are keys to a happy life.” Sage and thoughtful advice from a combat veteran.

Still, Deal is proud of her years in service and getting to do what she loved in the Marine Corps. “Graduating from flight training, receiving those coveted wings of gold, and achieving the status as the first female aviator in the Marine Corps stand tall on my list of highlights,” she says.

About grit, which she clearly has, Deal suggests: it is the stuff in inside you that allows you to get overcome obstacles and criticism. It is what keeps you moving forward to accomplish your goals.

What would Deal tell new lieutenants starting out today? She has a few direct pieces of advice.

“Be strong. Do your job. Don’t expect anything special. And…know who your friends are.”

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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.