Amy McGrath, Former U.S. Marine, Congressional Candidate in Kentucky
When Amy McGrath was a girl, a congressman told her that women shouldn’t be in combat. Fast-forward 200 flight hours and 89 missions later and McGrath has helped change the perception of women serving in the military. Now she’s bringing that fighting spirit to the voting booth and running for Kentucky's 6th congressional district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Former U.S. Marine
Amy McGrath recounts her journey to becoming the first woman marine to fly an F/A-18 Hornet in combat.
Amy McGrath, Former U.S. Marine, Congressional Candidate in Kentucky
Why She's a MAKER: Amy McGrath doesn’t shy away from a challenge. She joined the U.S. Marine Corps because “it was the toughest thing a woman could do in the military and that’s exactly what I wanted.” She pursued a career as a fighter jet pilot, the "most intense job you can do on the planet." And now she's campaigning to become the first woman representative of Kentucky's 6th congressional district. “Is it going to be easy? No—and I love that.”
Love At First Flight: At age 12, McGrath decided she wanted to be a military pilot only to discover there was a federal law prohibiting women from flying fighter planes in combat. Undeterred, she started a letter-writing campaign to the Armed Services Committee and members of Congress. "You're a girl," one congressman wrote back, "and Congress doesn't believe that women should be doing these things." But McGrath refused to back down. "They just haven't met me yet," she told herself. "I can do this." The combat exclusion law was repealed in 1993 and, in 1997, McGrath graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Wonder Woman: During her time serving in Afghanistan, McGrath received looks of "wonder" from those abroad who had never come across a female soldier, let alone one so respected. "When you go to these other countries, especially as a woman, and you're just doing your job, that's showing people American values. That's changing minds."
Help Her Help You: McGrath retired from the Marine Corps in 2017 and on May 22, 2018, she’s running in the Democratic primary for Kentucky's 6th congressional district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. “We have all these former military women running for Congress [because] we see what’s happening in our government. We’re basically saying, ‘I fought for my country and I’m not going to stand for that,’” says McGrath. “I don't want to be there just to fill a seat. I want to make a difference."
Update: Amy McGrath lost her bid for Congress during the 2018 midterm elections.
AMY MCGRATH: A lot of times you're going as a fighter pilot, you go up in the air and you're waiting for something to happen. The other times, it can be quite scary. Flying a fighter jet is the most intense job you can do on the planet.
I grew up in Kentucky. Youngest of three children. My mother was a medical doctor, and that was very rare. This was the 1980s. And I was always very proud of her. So when she wasn't there at night because she was on call, I would just say, well, mom's saving lives.
I was very much a tomboy who just wanted to play sports. I have an older brother who would be one of the captains, and he would always pick me first. And all of his friends would say, why are you picking a girl? And he would say, well, she's the best player. I knew that if I was beating all the boys in football or basketball, that there was nothing I couldn't do.
He wrote me back a very nice letter that was fairly condescending, which basically said, you're a girl, and Congress doesn't believe that women should be doing these things. And I said, well, so what? You know, they just haven't met me yet. I can do this.
So I wasn't deterred. Pat Schroeder was a Congresswoman at the time. She was considered so radical. And what she said was, the military of our nation exists to fight and win the nation's wars. And we should have the best people in those positions. Stick to your dreams. I'm working on it.
The executive officer comes in and looks at me and looks around the room and says, we've got to put you in a jet. And I had just barely gotten my qualification. So we suited up, pulled out into the runway with six air-to-air missiles loaded up to possibly launch and shoot down an airliner. Thank god we didn't have to shoot anyone down.
I think that 9/11 changed the mindset of all of us. It was on. This is what we had trained for. We were going to go into combat. Our job was necessary, and I was prepared.
The Marine Corps was the toughest thing a woman could do in the military. And that is exactly what I wanted. I remember going into Afghanistan and looking out at the men who were working and having them look at me-- and the wonder in their eyes. And they had never seen a woman who was treated with the same type of respect as all the other Marines, a woman as an equal. When you go to these other countries, especially as a woman, and you're just doing your job, that's showing people American values. That's changing minds.
My commanding officer pulled me in and told me, and my heart just stopped. I thought to myself, all right. I worked my whole life to do this. Flying, itself, is dangerous. You have to make sometimes life and death decisions when it comes to ordnance. When you can come through with putting the bombs on target on time, that's when you know your training and your work mattered.
Now we have all of these former military women running for Congress. Well, it's about time. We see what's happening in our government. We basically say, I fought for my country, and I am a woman, and I'm not going to stand for that. Is it going to be easy? No, it's going to be a challenge. And I love that. I mean, that's me. That's what Marines do. I don't want to be there just to fill a seat. I want to make a difference.
AMY MCGRATH: One of the things that I would tell young girls is, you can do anything you want. You just have to work hard, you know, and be-- you can go be yourself. And it's OK.
And you know what? Sometimes people are going to make fun of you. So what? So what?
That's their problem, not yours. And you just, you just move on. Because at the end of the day, you look back and you can be like, ah, yeah, I did that and they didn't.
AMY MCGRATH: I was about 10 or 11 years old. And I saw a History Channel documentary that had military jets. And I looked at that. And I said, "That is cool. That's what I want to do."
And it didn't occur to me at that time there were really no women doing that. I went to my mother. And I basically said, "hey, Mom, there's no women doing this job. You know, how do we change this?"
Because we learned there was a law. There was a federal law called the Combat Exclusion Law against women flying fighter jets. And she said, "Well, you know, let's learn about how to change the law." And that's how I learned about government, how citizens can be advocates for change.
AMY MCGRATH: I remember the first time I stepped into Afghanistan and getting off the plane and looking out at the men who were working and the wonder in their eyes that this sort of, wow. It's not so much what you-- how you, you look. It's how the other men are treating you. They're not used to seeing a woman as an equal. You know, when you go to these other countries, especially as a woman, and you're just doing your job, that's changing minds.
AMY MCGRATH: As a woman, it's always interesting to me to get the comment of, you know, how are you doing this with children and, you sure you want that job in Congress because you'll be away from your children? And I often want to ask them, would you be asking that of a man? And I just feel like, my kids are going to be OK, especially if they know their mother is doing something she loves, something that's important, and something that they can be proud of later on.
AMY MCGRATH: The people who represent the people should look like the people. They shouldn't all be old, white, rich lawyers. You know, they should be people from all walks of life. They should be different ethnicities, they should be male, female, and it should look like America. When you see someone who has done things that looks like you, you internalize it, and you can say, well, that can be me too.
AMY MCGRATH: We were out in the field, and it was my turn to be a squad leader. So that means I carry a smaller type of weapon than somebody else in my squad. There was another Marine who, I gave the squad automatic weapon, which is a larger machine gun. It's heavier, and he just complained. And I got frustrated.
And I said, well, I don't want to take your complaints. So give me the heavier weapon. And he got angry with me and said, "well, no. I'm not going to do that." And I said, "no, no. I'm on the squad leader. I'm tired of this complaining. Give it to me." And I think that that was a pivotal moment for me at that school, because people could look at me and say yeah, she's willing to carry not only her own load, but others' loads in order to be a leader.