February 24, 2008
Pg. 6 Capt. Andrea Ourada was part of the first all-women Blackhawk mission in Iraq
By John Camp
BALAD AIR FORCE BASE, IRAQ -- Capt. Andrea Ourada wears a 9mm Beretta semi-automatic pistol in a shoulder holster, wryly decorated with a pink “Princess” sticker. She also has good jewelry. The latest piece is a delicately wrought Combat Action Badge. The silver sword-and-wreath was awarded for direct-fire involvement as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot.
Ourada’s unit, the Army’s 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion, recently flew a combat-conditions mission unique in American history: The mission—involving two Blackhawks, each with two pilots and two door gunners—was carried out entirely by women, right down to the pre-mission crew flight briefings.
“It was exciting,” says Ourada, 29. “But it was also routine. We’re pilots—no problem. There isn’t any question about our abilities.”
Despite Pentagon regulations designed to limit their role in combat, more and more women are placing their lives in peril in service of their country. Ourada doesn’t talk about it much, or even worry about it. The members of her outfit fly day and night, over all kinds of terrain. They get shot at a lot, and they shoot back: Several crew chiefs, who also serve as door gunners, are female.
The 2-147’s pilots and crew handle a variety of missions. Most of the flying is called “the Baghdad Shuffle” and involves moving troops, other American and Iraqi personnel, and small, “high-value” packages around the country.
Less commonly, Ourada’s unit will drop infantrymen in the countryside, then recover them later, after sweeps against Iraqi insurgents. Ourada recalls vividly the mission that earned her the Combat Action Badge: “I was on the aircraft controls. The lead aircraft came over the radio and said, ‘Taking fire, breaking left!’ Everybody in our cockpit started looking, asking, ‘Where is it, where is it?’”
Suddenly, Ourada spotted tracer fire, dazzlingly bright through her night-vision goggles. “I said, ‘Three o’clock, three o’clock, three o’clock!’ We were taking fire from multiple sources, and it was pretty intense. We were close enough that I could actually see enemy personnel with weapons.”
As Ourada identified the source, her gunner started pounding the insurgents with machine-gun fire. Though it felt longer, she says, the whole engagement probably lasted less than 10 seconds.
“It’s an adrenaline rush that cannot be compared to anything else,” Ourada says. “It was almost like celebrating. How do you explain that?”
Yet as she was looking at the muzzle flashes and the incoming tracers, she thought, “Wow, I need to call home more.”
In the course of the yearlong mission in Iraq, the personnel of the 2-147 will get to go home once, for 15 days.
For Ourada, this means getting back to the farm where she grew up, near the tiny town of Lucan in southwest Minnesota. “We had a dairy farm,” she says, “and every day, no matter what else was going on, you had to do the chores.”
Ourada is the oldest of five children and the only daughter. Growing up around a bunch of roughneck brothers, Ourada says, “I never felt incapable of protecting myself. If I’ve got to fight, I’ll fight.”
That strength was tested when Ourada’s brother Daniel was killed in a horrendous automobile accident six years ago. She was serving in the National Guard at the time and was considering becoming a pilot, but the tragedy—and its effect on her family—wrenched her life into painful focus. Ourada always had been driven to excel, but suddenly it seemed much more important to have clear goals. When she was accepted to flight school, she decided to attend.
Two years later, Ourada says, “I was right at the top of the class. Then came the second anniversary of Daniel’s death. I went into a slump. I was having a really hard time. If I hadn’t come out of it, I don’t know what would have happened. But then Mom called. She said the whole family was coming down for my graduation. I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t let them down.’”
She graduated with honors.
Last month, Ourada was running an errand at Balad and stopped in at Charlie Company of the 7-101 Aviation Regiment, a medevac unit comprised mainly of square-chinned male pilots. When she walked into the operations shack, she got a lot of “Hey, honey, I’m a pilot” comments from the guys standing around the briefing table.
A friend of Ourada’s said, “You know, she landed her Blackhawk in Sadr City last week in a compound about the size of this table.”
Eyebrows went up.
“You’re a pilot?” asked one of the square chins.
“Oooh, she can hover,” said another.
Despite the teasing, they were impressed—and invited her to Charlie Company’s Saturday-night karaoke extravaganza. Why not? As far as Ourada is concerned, there’s nothing she can’t do.
“The problem I see is the perception girls have growing up,” she says. “The limitations are not real—we can do the things we dream about. Of all the jobs somebody might think females wouldn’t do, maybe flying in combat in Iraq is one of them. But here we are. We’re doing it. So can you. Or you can do anything else you want.” U.S. Women In The Military
*7465 women served in Vietnam, most of them as nurses
*195,605 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001
*25,243 women are currently deployed to war zones
*105 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 John Camp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of 23 best-selling novels written under the pen name John Sandford.