The first African American female combat pilot soars into history

Written by admin   // June 10, 2011   // 0 Comments

Vernice Armour as the first Black female Marine Corp. pilot in the service the military branch’s long and distinguished history.

Armour after the Marines. She’s now heading her own company, VAI Communications for Change.

by Taki S. Raton

She stands on the shoulders of pioneer aviator Bessie Coleman who left Chicago for France in November of 1920 to attend flight school at the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. After seven months of intensive training in this city’s number one flight school, Coleman earned her pilot’s license making her the first African American to obtain such a certificate.

This current day African American first would also stand on the shoulders of physician, scientist, and educator Mae Carol Jemison who in 1992 served as a mission specialist on NASA’s 50th space shuttle flight Endeavor September 12, 1992 thus becoming the first African American women in space.

Born in 1973, Chicago native Vernice Armour would emerge twenty-eight years later on July 2001as the Marine Corps’ first African American female combat pilot.

Her Chicago family additionally provided young Armour with sturdy shoulders.

Her father Gaston Armour was a retired major in the U.S. Army Reserves and later after her father and mother divorced, her stepfather, Clarence Jackson, was a former Marine Corps sergeant who served three tours of duty in Vietnam. Her grandfather also was a Marine.

But according to Howard Mann in the May 31, 2011 issue of The Black Collegian Online, Armour did not receive a “roaring round of applause” when she would follow their lead:

My stepdad didn’t want me to go in the Marine Corps,” said Armour. “He thought it would be too hard and he didn’t like the way they treated women. He was in Vietnam for a couple of tours, but I told him it would be different. I was going in as an officer and going into aviation.” She would add that “the biggest thing was, if I don’t do it, who will?”

Armour came across an article, notes Mann, by Lt. Col. Charles Boyd of the USMC who issued a call for what would be the first African American female pilot.

Boyd described the ideal candidate as a “special woman who possesses the attitude of a winner, the self-confidence of a dreamer, and the commitment of a pioneer.”

It was a challenge,” said Armour. “I didn’t believe it at first. I’ll be first? No one has done this already? For me, it was more important. It’s a legacy. We’re standing on so many shoulders, and that was just a promising opportunity.”

Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Armour graduated from Overton High School where she was a member of the mathematics honor society, the National Honor Society, and class vice-president.

While a student at Murfreesboro’s Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in 1993, Armour enlisted in the Army Reserves and later in the Army ROTC.

In 1996, she took time off from college to join the Nashville Police Department where she became the first female African American and the second woman overall on the motorcycle squad.

She graduated from MTSU in 1997 and in 1998 became the first African American female to serve as a police officer in Tempe, Arizona before joining the U.S. Marines as an Officer Candidate in October 1998.

Commissioned a Second Lieutenant on December 12, 1998 Armour was sent to flight school at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas and later Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Earning her wings in July 13, 2001, Armour was not only number one in her class of twelve, she was number one among the last two hundred graduates. She became the Marine Corps’ first African-American female pilot.

After flight school, Armour was assigned to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California for training in the AH-1W Super Cobra.

While at Camp Pendleton, she was named 2001 Camp Pendleton Female Athlete of the Year, twice won the Camp’s annual Strongest Warrior Competition, and was a running back for the San Diego Sunfire women’s football team.

She also became the first African American woman in any branch to see combat, serving two tours in Iraq in 2003 to 2004.

Armour piloted the famed AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter. One of her most memorable experiences, writes Mann, involved her sector being called in to support Marines and soldiers being held down on the ground by indirect mortar fire.

Several months later as cited in the Collegian account, Armour was at a hospital talking to a young Marine who told her about a Cobra that helped them out when they were pinned down.

We paired it up and discovered it was the same mission,” she recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Ma’am, you saved my life.’

Everybody over there is watching each other’s back. I’m there to protect men and women on the ground. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

John Raifsnider in a February 13, 2003 Camp Pendleton publication writes of this African American first that “Those who have spent enough time with 1st Lt. Vernice Armour will tell you there are two distinctive sides to this Marine Corps officer. One is an intensely competitive, openly confident athlete. The other is a quiet but self-assured Super Cobra pilot.”

Raifsnider later adds that for Armour, “competing for sports trophies is fun stuff. But flying missions for the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169 is strictly serious business, especially with the clock counting down to deployment and her first potential date with combat.”

Armour’s broad shoulders,” as noted in the Camp Pendleton account, “not only carry the weight of being a part of U.S. military history, but also as a role model for future generations who will follow in her boot tracks.” She would earn her captain’s bars in April 2003.

Additional military awards and decorations include the Naval Aviator Badge, the Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medal for valor, the Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Navy Presidential Unit Citation Service Star, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Navy Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.

Upon leaving the Marine Corps in June 2007, Armour began a career as a professional speaker. Her company, VAI Communications for Change is located outside Washington, D.C. near Quantico Marine Corps Base. Famed motivational speaker Les Brown says of Armour in the Mann report:

I’ve shared the stage with hundreds of great speakers over the past 20 years and they all better take notice, because Vernice Armour is a force, a powerhouse and I highly recommend her to you. She will change your life.”

Armour, however, does not see herself as a motivational speaker. “I like to call myself your leadership coach for the 21st century leader, a catalyst for change. I want to share my message of ‘excelerated passion.’ You acknowledge your obstacles, but stay focused on your goals. Acknowledge your obstacles, but don’t give them power.”

She adds that she wants to help corporations, businesses and organizations learn to appreciate diversity and in her words, “learn to let individuals strengthen the team without leaving their identities at the door.”

Zero to Breakthrough” is the title of her “7-Step Battle-Tested Method for Accomplishing Goals that Matter” success plan DVD. Additional information on VAI Communication for Change can be found on her website, www.vernicearmour.com.


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