U.S. Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. Sarah Deal says the closest thing she saw to a politician while serving in Afghanistan may have been CNN news broadcaster Anderson Cooper.
Lt. Col. Deal, the first female pilot in the corps, has seen enough that when she talks, people show up.
Last week, Deal gave a presentation, and the American Legion Post 28 commander said it was the largest crowd he has ever seen for such a speaker at Schaller Memorial Building in Perrysburg. Among audience members were veterans and soldiers, including other female soldiers who served in Afghanistan, and their families.
Lt. Col. Deal is a Pemberville native and 1987 Eastwood High School graduate who joined the Marines in 1992 during her summer break from Kent State University. After studying aerospace flight technology, she earned her commercial and private pilot’s license and is a certified flight instructor.
|U.S. Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. Sarah Deal|
After the Department of Defense declared in 1993 that women could participate in combat, she began her military flight instruction in Pensacola, Florida and two years later became a pilot.
Since then, she has known one other female pilot in her own squadron and two female pilots in another squadron.
Deal was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999. She and her husband have three boys and live in St. Joseph, Michigan, near the shores of Lake Michigan. They have twin 9-year-olds and a 4-year-old who are just starting to figure out her place in history.
“They didn’t know any different, which is kind of cool, up until now,” Deal said. “Now they are starting to catch on that I was the first female pilot and they are telling everyone.
“It’s interesting, because kids are honest. I’m going over their school papers and some of the things they write is interesting — the perspective. I see a roller coaster from the time I left to when I come home. They voice their opinions, which is kind of cool,” Deal said.
She has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and is now in the Marine Corps Reserve. Her choice to join the Marines was a simple one.
“First of all, my father was in the Marine Corps. Second of all, he said, ‘don’t join the Marine Corps,’” she said, explaining that his words made it a challenge she could not resist.
“Third of all, it seemed to be the hardest of them all,” Deal added.
Her choice to pilot helicopters was an easy one, too, she says.
“I like to fly helicopters a lot better because helicopters can go anyway you want them to and that’s what sold me on helicopters,” Deal said.
Her unit, which is based in Philadelphia, was in Afghanistan from May 1, 2009 to Thanksgiving 2010 for logistical support. While there, she found that the Afghans were not the most appreciative.
“We’re trying to get Afghanistan back on its feet — try and get them off the poppy,” Deal said. “It’s not a defense mission — it’s a security mission. We’re trying to give them a better way of life. It’s really a soft support mission over there right now.
“We’re all still wondering why we (Marines) are still over there because we were supposed to be the first ones there and the first ones out, and then the (other branches) are supposed to be coming in to stabilize everything, but we’re still there,” Deal said. “We do what we are told. We don’t always like what we are told.”
She says the morale of the U.S. military in Afghanistan has its ups and downs.
“It depends if you are reservist or active duty,” Deal said. “It’s a whole different ballgame if you are a reservist over there and the reservists don’t always get the respect, either. It goes in cycles, but I hear it’s getting better over there.”
She said every home in Afghanistan has a wall around it for protection, no matter if it’s in the city or country.
“It’s amazing how they live — no TV’s, no lights, and no windows. A bike and maybe a truck. It’s the way they live. Al-Qaeda wants them to live that way. It’s tough — they are so uneducated in the remote areas. It’s a very uneducated country over there until you get up to Kabul and there it’s very different. They don’t know there is a different way of life,” Deal said.
She said it’s a struggle convincing the locals the U.S. and allies are there to help. The allies would provide resources for a farmer to grow crops, and then Al-Qaeda would pay the same farmer even more money to fire a rocket at the U.S. soldiers.
“When you get close to the locals, they were either thumbs-up or they were throwing rocks at us,” Deal said.
The Marines are dealing with an enemy that knows the terrain better, even though the Marines have all the high-tech gadgets.
“It’s amazing — Al Qaeda goes from point A to point B and they never get lost. There are no real road maps or road signs.” Deal said.
She said it’s even more difficult to find top-level Al-Qaeda individuals, and the “political rules of engagement” the Marines have to follow during combat make the mission even tougher. She said a soldier gets used to living in danger, which in itself can be dangerous.
“You kind of get comfortable,” Deal said. “You kind of get used to getting shot at. At daytime it’s alright because you can see, but at night you can see the tracers all around.”
She flies with a minimum of four soldiers, sometimes five if an aerial gunner is needed. She sometimes worked alongside British, Estonian, and Swedish troops.
“We definitely had the most troops and the British were right behind us,” Deal said. “We were definitely the largest force over there.”
She typically flew 10- to 11-hour missions, carrying bridges, Humvees, water, generators, assault weapons, mail, dogs, injured children, dignitaries, prisoners, and both surviving and non-surviving American and Afghan troops.
“You name it, we carried it,” Deal said. “Basically, we carried everything. We were the bread and butter of virtually everything over there. It was amazing the stuff we had on our aircraft. We saw a lot of Marines come and go and some not make it out.”
A female guest at Deal’s presentation said her son was a Marine in Afghanistan, and he often sent photos displaying supplies hanging from parachutes that had been delivered from choppers like Lt. Col. Deal’s.
“To know the face of the person who delivers the love package over there is good to see,” the woman said.
Deal’s 52,000 pound chopper weighs 57,000 pounds when filled with fuel, but they never fill it up because of the extreme heat. The cockpit of her helicopter is not air conditioned and can reach 130 degrees inside.
“It’s like a little oven in there. It got really hot. We have to wear gloves because it’s too hot to touch the sticks,” Deal said. “When we got over there it was only in the high 90s, so it kind of builds up from there. It was a dry heat and you get used to wearing the long sleeves and the sunscreen and head cover and all that.”
Because of the sand and heat, maintenance was occurring on the spot, while flying, and all the time. She said the sand would get into the machinery of the chopper, which is a constant threat. She had dealt with sandstorms before. They weren’t as bad in Afghanistan, but still a problem.
“We got sandstorms in Kuwait, but from what I understand the sandstorms in Iraq are much worse than they are in Kuwait,” Deal said. “Everything is orange-ish. It’s like stepping on the moon — your footprint would be there.”
One way for Afghan civilians to earn an income was to bring in river bedrock to the military base to keep the sand down. However, in October, Deal said it got so cold in the desert, often in the evening, that she would find herself shivering.