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Vernice Armour: First African-American Female Combat Pilot

Answering the Call by Vernice Armour From U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings

Vernice Armour: First African-American Female Combat Pilot

It's only been a year since Captain Vernice Armour left the Corps to start her own business, but she's already using what she learned as a Marine -- and a helicopter pilot -- and she's sure it'll stay with her for the rest of her career. "Everything I do stems from my time in the Corps," she says. Once a Marine...

My childhood dream was to be a mounted police officer and ride a horse downtown. By the time I was 21, I had made it -- after a fashion. During my last year of college, I became a motorcycle cop, riding a steel horse. Then I took a step that changed my life. I joined the Marines.

My stepdad had been a Marine, with three tours in Vietnam; my father had retired from the Army Reserve as a major; and in World War II my grandfather was a Montford Point Marine -- a segregated unit that contained the first black men in the Corps.

I had no interest in the military. What changed my mind was a flyer offering a free trip to the Mardi Gras for anyone who joined the Army ROTC women's rifle team. During ROTC leadership training in New Orleans, I saw a black woman pilot wearing an Army flight suit. "Why didn't I think of that?" I asked myself.

I never forgot that image. A few months later, I decided that I could always be a cop, but I wouldn't always have the chance to fly. And I wanted to join the toughest outfit. I called the Marine recruiter and told him I wanted to become a combat pilot. I earned my wings in 2001 -- the first black woman aviator in the Corps.

I served two combat tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom -- eight months the first time and seven months the second -- and was recognized by the Department of Defense for a second achievement: becoming the nation's first African- American female combat pilot.

Captain Vernice Armour It's only been a year since Captain Vernice Armour left the Corps to start her own business, but she's already using what she learned as a Marine -- and a helicopter pilot -- and she's sure it'll stay with her for the rest of her career.
We flew close air-support and convoy escorts in AH-1W SuperCobras, spending the night at forward operating bases in hostile territory. Often we returned to our base in Kuwait with bullet holes in our helicopters. It was an exhilarating -- and rewarding -- experience.

Back in the States at Marine Corps headquarters, I entered a new world as a diversity officer and a liaison to the Pentagon. Speaking at conferences made me realize that people really wanted to hear about my Marine Corps experiences, and I loved sharing them.

I also realized that I couldn't give this my all and still provide what the Marines demanded, and deserved. So in August 2007, I left the Corps to start my own firm, helping companies and organizations improve their leadership practices and bottom-line results.

My company, VAI Consulting and Training, LLC, in Stafford, Virginia, has a list of clients that includes banks, defense contractors, nonprofit organizations, and even the Department of Defense. I view myself as a professional speaker and consultant.

In my work with these clients, I pass along the values and techniques that I learned and honed in the Corps. We all have obstacles in life, I tell them. Acknowledge the obstacles and "make it happen." I start my lectures wearing a flight suit and end it in a business suit. It helps make the point.

My friends joke that I personify the old adage "Once a Marine, Always a Marine." I'm always urging my listeners to ask themselves "What is your plan of attack?" I talk about making "flight plans" instead of "road maps." I urge them to do more than just promise to try. "Do it!" I say.

I'm sure that what I learned in the military will always stay with me. The dedication, the commitment, the loyalty, that bond that comes with being a Marine -- you don't find it anywhere else. Everything I do stems from my time in the Corps. I'm standing on a strong legacy.

I'm immensely proud of having been able to serve my country, and thankful for having joined the Corps. I've more than fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming a mounted policeman. I'm certain that very few of the cops who rode horseback in my childhood days ever flew choppers in combat.

Answering the Call is a monthly series of short articles by prominent men and women discussing the impact of their time in the military on their later lives.