When she was 12, Martha McSally’s father died unexpectedly, telling her on his deathbed, “make me proud.”
And that, throughout a distinguished career of service to her country, is precisely what she’s done, as she tells us in this well-written, highly-readable personal narrative of overcoming a battery of obstacles to become a genuine American hero. And along the way, among other things, she established herself as a champion of women’s rights, as when she legally challenged Don Rumsfeld’s Defense Department requirement that American women serving in Saudi Arabia wear abayas and always sit in the back seat when riding in cars.
Her lawsuit would result in the inevitable bureaucratic hassling, but, surprisingly, was quickly settled. She won, and would see her victory enacted by Congress into law. (An interesting postscript: When she later entered politics, Don Rumsfeld, who had been named in the suit, became one of her supporters.) And as herself a survivor of sexual assault, she led the fight for victims both in and out of uniform.
As Heather Wilson, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force put it, “Martha McSally paved the way for others, endured hardship, and exuded courage. The lessons she learned and the stories she shares are inspiring for anyone — in and out of the cockpit.”
Her accomplishments are legendary. Although a standout cadet at the Air Force Academy, she was first rejected for pilot training for being too short. But she persisted, at one point, actually attempting to physically add an inch or so to her height. Finally, her persistence, mastery of the skills involved and determination carried the day.
She was given a rarely granted waiver and would go on to become America’s first woman fighter pilot to fly a jet in combat and the first woman to command a combat fighter squadron, in all logging 325 combat flying hours. She was deployed six times to combat zones, earning a Bronze Star and six Air Medals. In her spare time, she also became a champion triathlete, distance runner and marathon participant, mountain climber and paragliding pilot.
After retiring from active duty, she settled in Arizona, serving two terms in the House of Representatives, ran for the Senate and lost, then was appointed by Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey to fill the seat once held by John McCain, then by retired Sen. Jon Kyl, like Barry Goldwater a conservative stalwart, who agreed to take the seat until a suitable replacement was found, then retired again when she accepted the appointment. She will be up for reelection in November.
There’s something special about pilots, and something special about the relationship between pilots and Arizona. Everyone knows about McCain’s flying career and how highly he valued it. And Goldwater, a genuine war hero who flew in World War II, was instrumental in transforming the old Army Air Force into an autonomous branch of service.
During a brief career interlude, when I moved to Tempe to teach at Arizona State and write an occasional column for Eugene Pulliam’s Arizona Republic, one of the great flagship conservative newspapers of the day, Arizona was still Goldwater country, solid conservative Republican. But less so today.
Part of the political problem is demographic. As California becomes increasingly unaffordable and in places unlivable, the traditional westward migration has reversed, with Arizona a favorite destination. According to Census Bureau figures, from 2010 to 2018, about 500,000 people moved from California to Arizona. And with that new in-migration, Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest, is slowly turning slightly purplish.
As of this writing, Miss McSally is running behind in the polls, by about the same margin as the president. At this point, the election could become a referendum on the president, who Miss McSally supports. But this is a moment in political time almost totally controlled by external conditions and events, when the incumbent president enjoys few advantages — when the best course is to hide out in the cellar and try not to say anything stupid. But external conditions have a way of changing dramatically, and when they do, so do the polls.
By all accounts, Martha McSally has been a well-liked, effective and conscientious senator who deserves reelection. As she puts it, “nothing has given me greater satisfaction than to be able to serve my country, in and out of uniform. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I am going to give all I have today to make a difference. To leave a legacy.”
Win or lose, her father would be proud.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
• • •
DARE TO FLY: SIMPLE LESSONS IN NEVER GIVING UP
By Martha McSally
William Morrow, $26.99, 273 pages