Flying a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter versus a fixed wing aircraft requires “quick decisions, seat of your pants, ten feet off the deck, yanking and banking, at night on night vision goggles while you’re getting shot at, kind of skill set,” said Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, an Air Force veteran who flew search and rescue missions and medevac flights.
Those skills came in handy during her third deployment to Afghanistan in July of 2009, when she was shot during a medevac mission while rescuing three U.S. soldiers injured by an IED.
“I took a round through the windshield that was just like a lucky pot shot from a rifle. And that round exploded into a bunch of different pieces of shrapnel,” Hegar said. “And I took most of it in the right arm and took some glass in the right leg from the windshield.”
Getting shot didn’t stop her and her pilot from continuing the rescue mission.
The enemy fired again with a machine gun after they’d retrieved the injured. This time, the aircraft was hit, badly. They managed to fly less than two miles before having to put the helicopter down.
Their fight to survive had just begun.
The nine members of the aircraft faced being overrun by 150 enemy fighters and “we had to defend the perimeter against the ground forces that were encroaching on us for about 20 minutes,” Hegar said.
They escaped from the area on the skids of two Army Kiowa helicopters, which are a small but heavily armed aircraft.
“It was an overwhelming odds day, but that’s, you know, people in this field are no stranger to overwhelming odds and to kicking them in the butt,” she said. “So that’s what we did.”
Sound like a movie? Hollywood agrees. Angelina Jolie is set to play MJ in the big screen adaptation of Hegar’s book about her experience, titled “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front.”
Hegar received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor and a Purple Heart for her actions that day. She is among only a handful of women to be award the medal, and only the second for valor.
After leaving the Air Force, Hegar was contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union about her experience engaging the enemy in ground combat. They were looking for women to tell their stories to help bring an end to the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy.
“I spent four years working in D.C. with (the ACLU) to try to not only get the policy repealed, but make sure that implementation happened in a way that didn’t hurt the military,” she said.
She signed on to a lawsuit, which eventually forced the DoD to end the policy.
That experience coupled with her military training gave her the confidence to run for public office in Texas’ 31st Congressional District.
“When I was in D.C., it was a real eye opening experience for me. I learned a lot about change management and how to get something important done in D.C.” The election for District 31 is in November 2018.
In partnership with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month. Check out our last featured veteran: U.S. Army veteran Emily Miller.