Two weeks into my first deployment, and I still hadn’t pulled the trigger. The outgoing unit was filled with stories of exciting engagements, near misses, and swashbuckling heroism, so I struck out on my first few missions thinking that I was in the Wild West, and that I would be coming back, Winchester out of ammo, every flight. Still, two weeks in and I hadn’t seen any action.
Sweat kept dripping from under my flight helmet and getting in my eyes, and I had a headache where my noise-cancelling earcups squeezed my temple. We had just gotten another TIC and changed directions to race toward the fight. When we arrived the ground unit radioed to us that one of their men had been hit and two enemy shooters were fleeing on bicycles, AK-47s slung on their backs. I scanned the area and saw them: two men pedaling down a dirt road out of the village, legs motoring, rifles in clear view.
My heart was in my throat. I had been training for two years to arrive at this moment. I had gone to countless aerial ranges, was trained in live fire, and was top gun in my company. I hadn’t just memorized the procedures for attack helicopter weapons engagements, it was muscle memory. My back seater lined me up for the shot. I was going to pull the right trigger, get a laser range, and begin the process of firing, but with heart pounding and sweat pouring down my neck, I pulled the left trigger, the “loud laser,” and fired five 30mm rounds. Without a range the shots went wide. I readjusted, got a range, and shot again – the engagement was over.
The cockpit was silent. I was frozen in my seat, my hands clenched and sweaty on my controls. Quietly, my front seater asked me to turn off the video recorder. Once I had it off I could tell he was mad. Normally an engagement involved a structured dialog between the front and back seaters, but that dialog hadn’t taken place. I had begun the engagement unexpectedly, surprising him when I fired. What he couldn’t tell was that I had surprised and horrified myself.
We stopped for fuel, and our wingmen hopped out of their aircraft as I got out of mine. They were whooping and smiling at me; they knew it was my first engagement and from their cockpit it had looked successful. They clapped me on the back and punched at me good-naturedly, but I had to tell them the truth: I had bungled it royally and was utterly ashamed. The proof was in the video, and when we went back I would have to debrief and everyone would know my failure. I told them I wanted to erase the video. I wanted to lie and say that the VCR malfunctioned or was overwritten, anything to prevent my ensuing shame.
The most senior of the three warrant officers stopped smiling and searched my face. After a few moments he said, “You can lie if you want to, and you can ask us to lie too. You can hide this moment away and pretend it never happened; we’ll keep your secret if that’s the route you want to take. Or, you can take what comes with telling the truth. That might be punishment and ridicule. I guess it depends on whether you are only capable of being brave when stakes are high, when you have an Apache between your knees, when it’s life and death. Is embarrassment – a mark on your reputation – beyond the limit of your courage?”
Later that night the senior warrant sat next to me in the dining facility. He rammed his big shoulder into mine and mussed my hair. He was proud of me, but I wasn’t there yet. The lesson he had taught me was only just beginning to sink in. I had been a kid, rushing into combat, hungry for glory. I had believed that heroism laid in the willingness to confront danger, the nerve to attack and to kill. At that remote refueling point, miles from our command post and safe from danger, I had learned a different lesson on bravery. I learned that heroism was also required in quiet moments and safe moments. That my mettle had been and would be tested in small ways and often. I had a decision to make about the person I was going to be, not just in combat but always, and I was scared.
Taylor Dinehart is an Army veteran of 11 years. She served as an AH64D Apache Longbow Pilot in Command for eight years then transitioned to become a Russian Foreign Area Officer for the remainder of her time in service. She is now a graduate student at UCLA studying urban and regional planning with a concentration on design and development. Her hope is to continue to serve while a civilian through the improvement of the built environment.