by Linda Maloney
The 1986 movie Top Gun inspired not only a generation of boys to follow in the contrails of “Maverick” and “Goose,” but many girls also determined to dogfight and soar high above the clouds in supersonic aircraft. A few months before my first son was born, I packed away my flight gear in the basement, wondering about the legacy I’d pass down to him. I imagined him one day proudly telling his friends, “My mom flew jets in the Navy, and she even ejected out of one over the Atlantic Ocean!” I envisioned him piloting a make-believe airplane, wearing my helmet and one of my flight suits, asking me what it was like to fly low and fast through mountains or to tell him again what a “kick in the pants” it was to be catapulted off an aircraft carrier. Then, in the next breath, ask me to make his favorite dessert.
I was part of a unique and intrepid group of military women aviators, I reflected. We have accomplished our dreams of being moms and of thriving in demanding and fulfilling careers. How do these other women balance family and a military career? I wondered. What types of career, family, and life decisions have to be made to make it all work?
To answer that question, I interviewed dozens of women for my soon-to-be-released book,Military Fly Moms ~ Sharing Memories, Building Legacies, Inspiring Hope, a collection of narrative biographies about current and former military women aviators who are also moms. A few of their stories follow.
For Victoria Cain, it was family tradition to serve in the military—her parents and both grandfathers had served. She enlisted in the Army to help pay for college loans and, after falling in love with the roar and vibration of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, applied for the Army’s warrant officer program. By 2002, Victoria
had completed flight training and joined an air assault battalion, flying the Black Hawk. She deployed to Iraq soon after and flew more than 450 combat hours.
Most of Victoria’s courtship with her soon-to-be husband took place in a combat zone via e-mail and satellite phone since they both were deployed to Iraq. After they returned home, they married, and their daughter, Kayleigh, was born the following year. Victoria says flying took on a new perspective following Kayleigh’s birth. “I never gave it much thought before, but I became extremely cautious and concerned that I would make it home safely.”
Victoria recently made the difficult decision to leave active duty and join the National Guard because “it has become increasingly difficult to remain dual-military parents” due to the growing number of deployments and family separations. Joining the National Guard allows Victoria to still be part of the Army team and also provide a more stable family environment. Victoria excitedly adds, “The best part is I still get to fly the Black Hawk.”
Susan Maitre admits she stumbled upon the Coast Guard after college and received one of the few pilot slots following officer candidate school. As a C-130 Hercules pilot, she flew search-and-rescue missions in Hawaii. She and her husband, Ben, an Air Force pilot, were married for two years before being stationed in the same location. Their son, Sam, was born soon after. Because both she and Ben were flying irregular hours, they hired a live-in au pair when Sam was three months old. Susan says, “Live-in care was invaluable when our schedules changed hourly.”
Expecting their second child, the couple moved to Monterey, California for Ben to attend Naval Postgraduate School, but no Coast Guard jobs were available for Susan in the area. Taking advantage of a Coast Guard program, she took a two-year break from active duty. She says, “As much as I loved my career, every part of me felt it was right to take a two-year break, to keep our family together. After twelve years in the Coast Guard, it was definitely an adjustment to be a full-time mom, and it wasn’t at all the break I thought it would be. I worked harder in those two years than I ever had before.” Susan returned to active duty in 2008, and both she and Ben are back to flying, juggling deployment schedules and nannies.
Reflecting on her thirty-year military career, Karen Baetzel says, “What makes a blue-collar girl from the middle of nowhere think she can fly for a living, live in exotic countries, and see the world pretty much on her own terms? I honestly do not know. My options after local college in 1978 seemed pretty predictable.” She was in debt from college loans, and says the military recruiting center seemed like the perfect escape hatch. “The Air Force wasn’t interested, and the Marines were at lunch—that left the Army and the Navy, and the sailor made the first eye contact.”
Three days after college graduation, she was on her way to Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, with all her worldly possessions packed in her 1972 Pinto. She remembers the Navy recruiter asking if she wanted to take the test for flight school, but she thought flying was beyond her reach. Karen says, “I felt lucky to get out of small-town USA.” However, after a few years in the Navy, she reconsidered and finally ended up at flight school, earned her wings of gold in 1981, and received orders to fly the H-46 Sea Knight helicopter in a vertical replenishment role, hauling equipment, supplies, and mail.
During her first squadron tour, she met and married her husband, Bernie. A few years later, she had her son, Chapman, and less than two years later, daughter, Victoria. She and her husband juggled sea-duty and shore-duty tours, but when her husband, also a naval aviator, decided to leave the Navy for an airline career, it was Karen’s turn to transition back to sea duty. It seemed incomprehensible to be away from an infant and a toddler, so Karen reluctantly transferred to the Navy Reserve.
However, a few years after joining the Reserves, the Navy recalled Karen to active duty for three years, to pilot the C-12 and C-9 aircraft out of Memphis, Tennessee. “I enjoyed the flying, but the pace of my job required that Bernie and I import my sister, Kay, to live with us for a year during the first Gulf War (Desert Storm). We could not easily find the kind of childcare we needed, short of an au pair, so we were fortunate Kay was willing to disrupt her life and help us.”
When the squadron in Memphis was decommissioned, Karen returned to the Reserves in non-flying jobs for the remainder of her career. Karen says, “I have truly lived the American dream, courtesy of the Navy. It has given me tenfold for the service I have rendered and has been the golden thread intertwined in every good path I have walked.”
Christine Mau wanted to fly jets ever since she was a little girl growing up near El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Her wish came true years later when she finished Air Force pilot training and headed to her first tour as an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot.
After her first assignment, Christine married and became an “insta-mom” to her stepson. “Becoming a mom totally changed my priorities and outlook on life,” she says. Her husband, whom she had met in the Air Force, got out and became a police officer. “It was very challenging for us to coordinate our schedules with daycare, because we both worked long days and odd hours. Near the end of my three-year tour, I became pregnant.” Christine considered leaving the Air Force after her daughter was born. “I quickly realized I am a happier person working and I also LOVE flying the F-15E. My husband, Steve, is very supportive, and also very proud of me.” However, moving frequently makes it hard for Christine’s husband to pursue his own career. He just completed his masters in aeronautical science and hopes to work in the aviation industry wherever they go next.
Christine recently finished Air Force Command and Staff College and also had a second daughter. Back to flying the Strike Eagle at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, she says, “I don’t look forward to being away from my family for any period of time, but I know that is a fact of life in our military today. My family is my priority and my bedrock. They help me to be a better pilot and military officer.”
At the age of fifteen, Bonnie Paquin dreamed of flying airplanes. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher with three other children, extra money for flight lessons was not something she thought she could ask for. Therefore, she joined the Air Force JROTC program, took orientation rides in different airplanes, and applied to and was accepted to the Air Force Academy. That was just the start of her aviation career and the fulfillment of her childhood dream. “My graduation from flight school in June 1997 was probably the most rewarding moment of my career.” Following pilot training, she flew the Air Force C-130 Hercules deploying all over the world flying tactical airdrop missions, passenger and cargo airlifts, presidential support, and combat support missions.
Bonnie married a Navy pilot and, after spending the first few years in different states, they moved within 100 miles of each other. After she became a mother, realizing the difficulty of future co-locations, Bonnie left the Air Force to keep her family together. Her husband continued as a Navy pilot and deployed for a six-month cruise. Though Bonnie enjoyed the time at home with her son, she says, “I realized that I was a mom, wife, AND a pilot. Without flying, I was missing a whole piece of me.” So, she gained her civilian flying qualifications and was soon hired by Southwest Airlines.
"I wish I’d known how hard it would be to have a family while continuing military service and flying airplanes, but if someone had told me along my way, I wouldn’t have listened. I wanted to fly airplanes, and nothing was going to stop me! It is a challenge, a lot of work, and sometimes a sacrifice, but then, aren’t some of life’s most wonderful things made out of these?"
In Military Fly Moms, these and other military aviator moms provide their perspective on how they manage their many roles, offering insight and encouragement to other women who balance busy careers and motherhood.
While interviewing women for the book, I would ask, “How do you balance family and a military career?” Not one said it was easy. Many came to the same conclusion that it doesn’t always have to be perfect—in fact, frequently it can’t be. You can’t always make everything nice and neat and tidy when you’re balancing demanding jobs, flying schedules, and family priorities.
My next question—“Why stay in the military?” Resoundingly, they gave similar answers:
"I can’t think of any job I’d want other than the one I have. Being an aviator and an officer is part of who I am. It’s not just a job. I serve because I love my country, and I want my family to live in a country that is free."
As much as these military women love their careers and love being patriots, they love and cherish being moms even more, as quoted by one of the women from My Mom Flies--
"I love being a mom, because it reminds me every day what really matters, and what doesn’t. The bottom line is very simple: Between the grins and giggles and hugs and kisses, I realize that my husband and I are molding these sweet creatures into remarkable lives of their own."
Linda Maloney is a retired Naval Aviator and author of the soon-to-be released book Military Fly Moms ~ Sharing Memories, Building Legacies, Inspiring Hope, a collection of narrative biographies about current and former military female aviators who are also moms, excerpted above. Another version of this article was published in March 2011 in the Military Matters section of MOAA’s website.