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Brothers and sisters in arms

By the time Col. Campbell graduated from the Air Force Academy and entered the “racked and stacked” system of finding and qualifying pilots in the late 1990s, the presence of women in the ready room had become routine.

“I think the important thing for me was that I did the absolute best that I could,” she said. “That’s always the way that I approached things. I found that competence goes a long way so if you are good at what you do you are accepted. The gender doesn’t matter.”

“These guys are my brothers and they look out for me, just like any brother would look out for their sister, and it’s just a very strong bond and relationship. And a lot of that is, when you go to combat together you realize that you depend on each other. Your lives depend on each other to do the absolute best job that you can when you’re flying.”

Her squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She found herself headed to Baghdad to hunt Iraqi tanks, then got diverted to take out enemy troops firing on advancing Americans.

Hit by ground fire, her A-10 lost its hydraulics. Col. Campbell then moved to the backup system — herself. She used manual levers to straighten out the 15-ton plane. She thought she might have to bail out over friendly territory. But the Warthog just kept flying. Its shattered air frame made it back to base.

“I’m incredibly thankful to the people who designed and built the A-10 and the maintainers who maintained it,” she told The Times.

Just like women’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan moved the Obama administration to lift the gender ban for direct land combat, a war 25 years earlier, Desert Storm, convinced Congress the time was right to break the combat aircraft barrier.

Gender-neutral policy born

Congress erased the legal prohibition in late 1991 as part of the annual defense budget. Then-President George H.W. Bush signed it into law, but no action was taken in the 1992 election year. Once President Clinton took office, one of Aspin’s first acts as defense secretary was to issue a new gender-neutral policy.

The Navy was in a rush to usher the first females into combat air wings. One of the trailblazers, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, was killed Oct. 25, 1994, when her F-14 Tomcat crashed into the sea while on approach to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego.

The Navy put out a news release blaming the accident on mechanical failure. But someone leaked the official investigative report which blamed pilot error.

Then a Navy whistleblower provided detailed records on Lt. Hultgreen’s training to Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness. The records, Mrs. Donnelly said, showed a pattern of favoritism from instructors to make sure that young women made it to the fleet.

“A promising female pilot, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, lost her life attempting to land on a carrier when she repeated high-risk glide-slope errors she had made in training twice before,” Mrs. Donnelly told The Times. “An instructor who tried to hold her back for more training was overruled.”

Mrs. Donnelly remains firmly opposed to the Pentagon’s 20-year push to put women into every mission specialty. One reason: the Armed Forces is suffering a consistent rise in sexual assaults as the sexes operate in more intimate surroundings on ships and at battlefield bases.

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