I hadn’t seen Martha McSally in almost 30 years since we were both cadets at the Air Force Academy in the late 1980s.
As cadets, Martha was known for her toughness. She was a leader. And most of all, everyone knew she was absolutely fearless.
Leadership. Toughness. Fearlessness. These are the things Martha McSally brings to the table.
Of course, these traits alone don’t guarantee she’ll be a good U.S. senator.
But I’d say it’s a very good bet she will be.
Let me explain why.
I’m sure you don’t remember me, I told the current Arizona Congresswoman when we were reintroduced at a lunch in Orange County a few months back, I was a SMACK when you were a Firstie at the Academy.
A “SMACK” is cadet slang for a freshman at the Air Force Academy. It’s actually an acronym that stands for “Solider Minus Ability, Coordination, and Knowledge.” When I was there, SMACK was one of the gentler terms Upperclassmen used to describe those of us in the Fourth Class.
A Firstie is a senior. They are the Brahmins in the cadet caste system. For a SMACK in the middle of basic training, thoughts of one day becoming a Firstie were on par with thoughts of one day walking on the moon.
The congresswoman smiled. But I could see she didn’t remember me.
But of course she didn’t; as a SMACK the only time a Firstie would have acknowledged my existence was if I made an error reciting General John M. Schofield’s quote or my room failed to pass a Saturday morning inspection.
I remember you as Cadet Assault Course McSally, I told her.
The words lit a smile on her face. She laughed, and said the only thing she could after being confronted with such a serious piece of information about our past:
The Assault Course, as every cadet who goes through basic training at the Academy vividly remembers, is the place where otherwise civilized and well-adjusted 17 and 18-year-olds are introduced to the bayonet.
Specifically, learning how to fight with a bayonet.
More specifically, learning how to fight another person with a bayonet.
I’ve managed to suppress much of my Fourthclass year from my memory, but do still clearly recall the Assault Course.
I remember my basic cadet squadron double-timing down a dusty road in Jack’s Valley just north of the Academy to the Assault Course, rifles in hand, and there being greeted by a cadre of upperclass cadets.
Because of the nature of the training, Assault Course cadre were typically selected for their size and unpleasant dispositions. Many of the Upperclassmen waiting for us that day were linebackers, offensive linemen, and snarling defensemen on the Academy hockey team.
As you can probably surmise, if you find yourself fighting another person with a bayonet, being the bigger person is better than being the smaller one.
But being the biggest, angriest, most aggressive person is the best.
To put it in 2018 terms, the Assault Course cadre were all about micro-aggressions - minus the micro.
Behind the gargantuan wall of humanity waiting to instruct (read: terrorize) the newly arrived formation of basic cadets was a platform, maybe 6-feet off the ground, on which stood another cadet with a bull horn.
This was the cadet in charge of the Assault Course.
The ringleader. The Lex Luthor of bayonet training.
The scariest one of them all.
Any guesses who that cadet was for the Class of 1991 at the United States Air Force Academy?
Cadet First Class Martha McSally.
When I was on the Assault Course that day in the Summer of 1987, less than 10% of my class was female. Women had only begun to be admitted to the nation’s service academies in 1976 and the Class of 1980 was the first with female graduates. There just weren’t that many women at the Academy when I enrolled in 1987, and fewer still when Martha arrived four years before that.
The Academy hadn’t had a female Commandant of Cadets yet. There were no female fighter pilots.
So the idea that one of the handful of female cadets would be the leader of the Assault Course wasn’t just unusual in the summer of 1987, it was unheard of.
And yet the 5 foot 5 inch woman who probably weighed 130 pounds (including her rifle and bayonet) was standing on the platform, doing it.
The fact that this comparatively tiny person was in charge of teaching jet-age warriors how to fight in the most primitive way possible wasn’t lost on those of us who were on the field that day. When I relayed the story about meeting the Congresswoman to one of my classmates, his recollection matched my own: “I don’t think I’ve ever been that afraid of someone so small,” he said.
She was fearsome indeed. And although I didn’t realize or appreciate it at the time, what she did required a certain fearlessness too.
That fearlessness never left her. After graduating from the Academy she went to flight school and became an A-10 pilot. The A-10, nicknamed the “Warthog,” is a big, brutishly ugly airplane with a fearsome 30mm cannon mounted under its chin that was originally designed to kill Russian tanks on the plains of Europe.
Nowadays, the Warthog’s primary mission is to fly low and slow in support of ground troops. This means its pilots (affectionately known as “Hog Drivers”) are typically doing hairy, dangerous things close enough to the enemy to see the length of their beards. In fact, Hog Drivers sit in what amounts to an armored titanium bathtub because it’s expected the plane will be hit by enemy ground fire. Martha flew A-10s in combat, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was the first female in Air Force history to command a fighter squadron in combat.
Anecdotal, yes, but there’s much about Martha McSally in these stories.
They show that she’s one tough motor scooter. So tough in fact, that other tough motor scooters want to follow her.
They prove that she can perform in the harshest and most unforgiving environments imaginable.
After flying missions and leading an A-10 squadron against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, navigating Gucci Gulch and the halls of the Capitol will be a walk in the park.
Patrick “Kit” Bobko is the author of “Nine Secrets for Getting Elected: The Official Manual for Candidates from City Hall to the Statehouse and Beyond” available on Amazon.