A descendant of Col. Charles Beckwith, who in 1977 founded the Army's Delta Force that today hunts and kills Islamic terrorists, passed the test in May to become a member of the elite special operations forces.
The graduate is not a burly Beckwith man, but the late colonel's 20-year-old granddaughter.
Airman 1st Class Mary Howe is one of the few women qualified as an aerial gunner aboard Air Force special operations AC-130 gunships — the warplanes with accurate cannons unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan to support troops on the ground.
Airman Howe is the daughter of retired Army Master Sgt. Paul Howe — featured prominently in the best-selling book "Black Hawk Down" about a Delta Force operation in Somalia — and Connie Beckwith Howe, a former Army Reserve major and one of the colonel's three daughters.
"I hold gunships really close to my heart," Airman Howe said from Hurlburt Field on the Florida Panhandle. "They've been over my dad. They watched over him when he was in the military."
The Howe home in Nacogdoches, Texas, is adorned with photos of Beckwith, who persuaded the Pentagon to create the first designated counterterrorism unit known as Delta Force. He is a father of the special operations force and its fusion with intelligence assets and strike aircraft such as the AC-130.
"My parents tried to keep him alive in our family and let me know everything he did," said Airman Howe, who was 1 year old when her grandfather died in 1994 at age 65.
Desert One disaster
Delta Force's first overseas mission to free American hostages in Iran in April 1980 ended in chaotic failure on the sands of a desolate landing zone code-named Desert One.
But Beckwith's vision has passed the test of time. Delta Force today, made up of about 1,000 soldiers based at Fort Bragg, N.C., is honed to hunt down key terrorist targets globally. It played a major role in finding Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda's chief henchman in Iraq who was killed by an Air Force strike on his hideout.
Airman Howe said she decided to follow in the family tradition after reading "Black Hawk Down" as a high school student. She was especially struck by the passages about Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart, a Delta sniper who gave his life defending a shot-down Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Mogadishu in 1993 in an intense grenade and small-arms battle.
Shughart was awarded the Medal of Honor. The book passage told of Shughart's wife sending a friend to Dover Air Force Base to view the body but being told that it could not be recognized as the sergeant's.
By 2015, special ops may have more women like Airman Howe, but this time in trigger-pulling jobs on the ground. The Obama administration has removed a regulation that banned women from direct ground combat units.
U.S. Special Operations Command has launched two years of studies into the ramifications of inserting women into the Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Green Berets and Army Rangers — the military's most elite.
Today, 20 women are among the 193 AC-130 aerial gunners either in training or manning the plane's arsenal.
Airman Howe, who enlisted on July 4, 2011, passed qualifications as an aerial gunner on May 6 for 25 mm guns and 105 mm cannons.
"I grew up around guns, and this was the best job for me," she said.
She said she hopes to go on the next AC-130 deployment overseas.
"I would be in the back of the plane," she said. "Basically, you are going to be loading the guns. We basically trouble-shoot malfunctions with the guns, making sure if something does go wrong, we have to be able to fix it."
Encouraged by parents
Her parents, she said, "were ecstatic about my decision, especially to join the Air Force. They were really happy I took the decision myself."
Her father, who owns a company that trains civilian law enforcers, does not talk much at home about his Army exploits.
Airman Howe said "Black Hawk Down" helped her understand the culture she would be embracing and learn more about her father.
Author Mark Bowden told the hour-by-hour story of the disastrous hunt for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in 1993. At one point in a long-running firefight, Sgt. Howe needed to find cover for his Delta men to treat a wounded soldier.
"Howe abruptly kicked in the door to a one-room house and barged in with his weapon ready," Mr. Bowden wrote.
"Less-experienced soldiers still felt normal civilian inhibitions about doing things like kicking in doors, but Howe and his men moved as if they owned the world. Every house was their house. If they needed shelter, they kicked in a door. Anyone who threatened them would be shot dead."
Connie Beckwith Howe said she and her husband encouraged their daughter to join the Air Force.
"We just felt she had a better chance to be in special operations if she went to the Air Force," Mrs. Howe said.
"We knew that the Air Force was a little bit more pro-education. To me, it was just a better fit for her. Mary has picked up the strong influence of serving your country. My father instilled this strong sense of patriotism that I think she must have somehow picked up."
She and her daughter are members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
"She is descended from a line of what I think of as warriors," Mrs. Howe said.
If Col. Beckwith were alive today, "He would have loved it, and he would have found any excuse to go visit Hurlburt Field so he could 'check' on her," Mrs. Howe said.
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