Sen. Martha McSally, First Female Combat Pilot, on ‘Doing Things Afraid’

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., was the first female Air Force pilot to fly in combat and to command a fighter squadron. McSally joins “Problematic Women” to share her story of “feistiness” and what drove her to literally do what no American woman before her had ever done.

In her new book “Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up,” McSally shares her own story and how we can all move past our fears to accomplish what is said to be impossible. 

Also on today’s show, we give a quick breakdown of the media’s coverage of new COVID-19 cases. And we discuss the Supreme Court’s latest abortion ruling, which poses a critical health risk to women. And as always, we’ll be crowning our Problematic Woman of the Week.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. Enjoy the show!

Virginia Allen: We are joined by Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, an Air Force veteran and America’s first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat and command a fighter squadron. And of course, the author of the newly released book “Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up.” Sen. Martha McSally, thanks so much for being here today.

Sen. Martha McSally: Oh, thanks for having me on.

Allen: Senator, I know that when you decide to release a book and you decide on that date, you have no way of knowing what is going to be happening in the world at that time. But right now, in the face of COVID-19 and after the death of George Floyd, so many Americans are asking the question, “How can I make a difference in my community?”

Your book “Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up” really seems like it has come out absolutely at the perfect time. So, what would you say to those who are feeling overwhelmed right now by America’s economy, concerns about COVID-19, and the racial injustices that we see in America?

McSally: Well, thanks for the opportunity to share just some nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned in my own life. I’ve had some unique opportunities for sure, flying fighter jets and climbing mountains and suing the secretary of defense for making our servicewomen wear burqas. But what I talk about in the book are just very much common human experiences like fear and how you overcome your fear and find your own courage, how you are able to be resilient and find your faith and prevail in the midst of incredible adversity and grief.

And again, I never would have imagined that my book would be published at this time, where so many Americans can relate to fear, they can relate to the uncertainty, fears for the future, or even just feeling helpless about what is it they could do, like you mentioned.

And so I share perspective by telling my stories about things you can do. And for example, when I talk about my eight-year battle with the Pentagon to challenge them over making our servicewomen wear burqas, I didn’t just wake up and say, “I am going to sue the secretary of defense today. No, it’s a really great career move.”

But what I was inspired by when I had the first decision to make, which was whether I was going to walk by a problem or not, I walked by the duty desk, I was deployed overseas, just brand-new female fighter pilot, trying to focus on doing my job, and I see a picture of a young enlisted woman wearing this full Muslim garb, and I could have just walked by it and said, “It’s not my problem.” I was in Kuwait, they’re in Saudi Arabia, but I felt a conviction: “That’s wrong.”

And then the next question is, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” And it’s a part of our culture in the military, to look yourself in the mirror and say, “What can I do? What is the next right thing to do today?” And sometimes trying to change the world can feel like climbing Mount Everest, but what’s the next thing you can do? What’s the next step you can take in order to be impactful and make a difference?

So, I share my story of this eight-year battle to include suing the secretary of defense and getting a law passed through Congress as a one-woman lobbying campaign, but I was able to do it, and very practical steps about how you can make a difference, if you feel that conviction.

I talk about how I was inspired by the Book of Esther [in the Old Testament] during that whole period of time, when I was just deciding, should I do nothing about this or should I follow my conviction?

And in Esther 4:14, it’s, “Can it be that you were put in this position for such a time as this?” And that just spoke to me. And through my whole journey, do the next right thing in that battle, I continued to go back to that. What’s the next right thing to do? And could it be that I was put in this position for such a time as this?

So, I think a lot of your listeners can relate to that right now. What is it that you can do to help another right now? What is it that we can do to bring out the best in America? We’re often seeing the worst of America.

What can we do in order to provide healing and hope for people, whether it’s from the coronavirus, and lives and livelihoods, or the injustices that people feel? But then the fear of the unrest that’s coming from that, where criminals are taking advantage of it, what is it that you can do right now in your family, in your community, in your neighborhood, in your state or your country?

Only you can answer that, but my book is intended to be a wingman to you in your journey so that I can provide that encouragement for you to do amazing things in your own life.

Evans: Wow, senator, I just love that so much. At the age of 12, you lost your father, and his dying words to you were, “Make me proud.” And ultimately we all want to do that, want to make our parents and our loved ones proud of us, and I’m sure your dad would be very proud of you. But how have those words, the words of your father, steered the course of your life?

McSally: Well, my life has been shaped by his death, and like many people can relate to, I mean, he was here one day, and then all of a sudden, he was gone.

We were hanging out together in the summer one day, and then by that evening, he went upstairs to lie down, and he wasn’t feeling well. By that night, he was in the hospital, and in the middle of the night, he just knew in his spirit, even though he was stable, he said, “You know what? I’m going to die. I need to see my children.”

And he just knew in his spirit to summon us. And we got to visit with him. I was 12. I didn’t really understand it. We talked about a lot of mundane things like you’d talk about with your loved ones every day—school, swimming, siblings, the dog—but in the course of that conversation, which I never would have imagined would be the last, he told me to make him proud.

And the next day he had another heart attack and left us. And it propelled me on this path, not to get up to the next day, “How do I make my father proud?” It was a tough time. I mean, that’s a rough age anyway, to lose a parent, then I’m the youngest of five kids.

My mom, now a single mom, she went back to school and back to work to take up the mantle, to lead the family. And it was a tumultuous time for me. I was grieving, but I was driven. And those can be exhausting elements in junior high and high school. But I learned. I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on it until later when I looked back. I learned each day is a gift through that loss.

And through my adult life, whenever I’m faced with a decision, and people laugh at me when I say this, or they think it’s weird, I say, “Well, if this is the last year of my life, is this the purpose for me? Is this the highest and best use of my time and my energy and my talents to make the biggest impact for others?” And people go, like, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Why would you say that?” I’m, like, “Well, you have to live like that, to be purposeful.”

And, look, some days, you’ve got to vacuum the house and clean the toilets. You can’t be climbing mountaintops and changing laws every day, but if you are purposeful about, “What is it I’m doing with my time and my life and am I being a good steward of it and leaving a good legacy if today’s is my last, or if this year is my last.”

So, it’s formed and shaped my decision-making, to treat every day like a gift, and he came from humble circumstances. He lived the American dream, lost his dad before he was born; his mom, when he was a teenager. He started working at age eight and never stopped. And people believed in him and helped him get a work-study scholarship, he served in the Navy and used his G.I. Bill, and he was just driven to make a better life for us kids. And I benefited from that. And, literally, at age 49, he worked himself to death, to provide opportunities for us.

And I feel the responsibility to carry on that mantle and do something meaningful with my life. And so, that’s really what shaped me in every decision I make. And again, it’s not been, when I went off to the Air Force Academy at 18, it’s not like I was, like, “OK, what am I going to do to make dad proud?”

You’re a teenager when you’re making this decision. So, it’s in your subconscious, but it propelled me to step out of my fears and to push myself in order to meet my own destiny.

Allen: Well, and you talk in your book about how shy you were as a child and that decision to join the Air Force and then ultimately to pursue becoming a fighter pilot that, that wasn’t necessarily the career that probably family members or friends who knew you as a kid would have chosen for you.

So tell me a little bit about how all that transpired.

McSally: Yeah. I was a shy, pudgy kid, and motion-sick, too. So, I never would have imagined I’d be the first woman to fly in combat in our history. It’s amazing how your life’s journey goes. For me, I’ve found a level of feistiness, for sure, that is in my personality as I was growing up, and that could go either way.

You could use that in a negative way to just rebel against everything, or you can channel your feistiness towards something, be a change agent and make a difference. And so, on my own path, I went to the Air Force Academy.

I was really looking for opportunities to get a good education and not saddle my mom with debt. I really didn’t know what I was getting into. You make these decisions when you’re 17, and it’s a full scholarship, I thought I was going to be a doctor. I thought the challenge would be good for me. I thought the discipline would be good for me, to pour my energy into a positive, meaningful way, and you pay back in service, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, like most teenagers.

And so, off I go to the Air Force Academy. I get on the plane with combat boots and bras. That’s what they tell us to bring, because that’s the only thing they said they couldn’t fit you for.

And when I got there, I found out that because I was a woman, I couldn’t be a fighter pilot, and it just made me mad. And so it tapped into my feistiness in a way of, like, “Oh, yeah? Well, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” And people laughed at me. They said, “It’s against the law.” And I said, “We live in America. Laws change.”

And I’m going to keep this dream in my heart. I’m going to bloom where I’m planted. I’m going to excel. I’m not going to have a chip on my shoulder. It’s not fair, but life’s unfair. And I’m going to keep excelling in the moment. And you never know when the door’s going to open. And I was in the right place at the right time, with the right qualifications and grit when the door was finally blown open.

Evans: So what was that law that stopped you from being a fighter pilot?

McSally: Women have been serving in uniform since the beginning of our country in many capacities. Since the American revolution, women have been always serving. And we’ve been limited in how we can serve. So after World War II, we had these amazing women pilots in World War II, they’re my heroes, I talk about them in the book. When they pass a law to formally, fully integrate women into the military, with restrictions, it was against the law for women to fly combat aircraft and be on combat ships, but not be in ground combat.

They had a hard time defining it, so they never put that into the law. And that law stayed on the books until 1991. After Desert Storm, Congress repealed the law. I was actually in pilot training at the time, and I thought I was going to be able to pick a fighter because the law was repealed, but the Pentagon wouldn’t change their policy, so I still couldn’t pick a fighter out of pilot training.

Again, [I] didn’t have a chip on my shoulder, didn’t think it was right, but keep blooming where you’re planted. So I picked a job to be an instructor pilot for a few years to keep building my skills, because I really thought, “They’re going to change this soon, and I want to be ready.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Allen: And what was that motivation that kept you going to say, “No, this is going to happen. This law will change.” What was driving you?

McSally: Well, look, we’re America. And we were created on an ideal and we certainly strive every day to live up to that ideal. We’ve not been perfect as a nation, we still have work to do, but I truly believe, at its core, that America is about, “Pick the best man for the job, even if she’s a woman.”

And so that was a fundamental, just prove you can do it. Don’t look for special treatment, but man, if I graduate, and I can fly the plane better than the guy who was in the order of merit below me, aren’t we as a country wanting to put the best person in the cockpit?

Why would we have these restrictions? The plane doesn’t care if you’re a boy or a girl. The plane just cares if you fly well, and you shoot straight.

And so, I wanted to show that, “Hey, we can do this, too. Women are patriots too. Women can serve, too. Women are fighters, too.” And so don’t just say that we, as an entire group, can’t do something. That’s not what America is all about.

I mean, that was just fundamentally driving me, but then again, as a person I’m, like, “I want to show we can do this. I can serve in this way, too. I want to make a difference by being a fighter pilot.”

It certainly matched my personality, as I grew into an adult, that being a fighter is who I am. And I just was, like, “It’s going to change. I believe that in America, this is going to change, and I’m just going to keep dreaming.”

It took almost 10 years for me, from when I first entered the Air Force Academy, to when I was cleared for takeoff for the first time in the A-10 Warthog. Almost 10 years. And I bring the reader into the cockpit in the book, so that you can share that takeoff with me.

Evans: So, you mentioned earlier in the interview that in 2001, you sued the U.S. Department of Defense over the military policy that required servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya, which is a body covering, when they traveled off-base. Why was this such an important battle for all female service members?

McSally: Well, it was, because it was about America’s values. It’s about our Constitution. I raised my right hand as a military officer to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And when I saw that, when I saw that picture, I was just deployed to Kuwait, walked by the duty desk, saw a picture of a young enlisted woman in Saudi Arabia saying, “This is the appropriate way to wear the abaya.”

I took a double take, and I just knew in my gut, this was wrong. And don’t walk by a problem, like I shared. I just felt this conviction, that this was wrong. As I formulated and studied this issue and formulated my arguments against it, why would we be using taxpayer dollars to buy Muslim garb and be making our U.S servicewomen, who are over there on deployment, wear the garb when they were off-base on official duty or off-duty.

It wasn’t just to go shopping, but when you were on duty as well, traveling between bases or going to the airport. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought it was wrong. It was against our American values.

Look, we’re [not] over there to defend them, but to defend us, and it’s one thing to say, “We’ll be culturally sensitive in different countries. Don’t shake with your left hand or show the bottom of your foot.” But I mean, Saudi Arabia has got these 7th-century practices, where women are treated like property, and it’s one thing to tolerate that; it’s another to be allies with someone like that and turn a blind eye to their behavior, but it’s a whole different thing to then impose those requirements on our own people.

I just thought it was so against what we stand for. It was so against what I wore the uniform for and what I took the oath of office for, and I started on this journey to overturn it. And again, it took me eight years. So, perseverance is certainly a theme in my book here, but ultimately I prevailed.

Allen: Wow. That is incredible. And after you left the Air Force, you decided to get involved in politics. Why did you choose to run for Congress?

McSally: Well, I was going to joke, I ask myself that every day—no, I’m just kidding. For me, this is a continuation of my service. One of my opportunities I had as a military officer was to be a legislative fellow for Sen. Jon Kyl from Arizona. And this is when I was a major back in 1999, and I got to be on his national security team. And I saw from the inside that this was a man of integrity. He was a workhorse. He is a smart, committed man.

And I didn’t walk away from that saying, “Oh, I want to run for office some day.” Some people love the politics. I walked away with this very strong impression, “Wow, we need people like him.”

What they’re doing is really important. And we need people who are of integrity and care about the country more than themselves, and are not just focused on their next election, but service, and country, and honor. We need that there.

And so after I retired [from the Air Force], I found myself, yelling at the television like a lot of people, “What are those people doing in D.C.? Why can’t they get their act together?” And I looked myself in the mirror, and said, “What are you going to do about it?” It’s part of our culture, as well in the military: Don’t complain about something unless you’re willing to step up and fix it.

And so I decided to get into this new combat zone. It’s the same oath of office that I took as an officer, as a member of the House and as a senator, same exact wording. So I see this as my next assignment in civilian clothes, in a different combat zone called Washington, D.C., and I have to put up with a lot of things that are extremely frustrating, but I’m at the table, I’m in the room, and I can make a difference for others, for the country, for my constituents, at this critical time, and it’s an absolute honor.

Evans: So, senator, you have a whole chapter in your book titled “Do Things Afraid.” How has fear played a role in pushing you to do what others thought was impossible?

McSally: Well, we can all relate to fear, and for people who are listening right now, they may feel and resonate that they are being held back by fear. Some people may be right here in the moment, or they can look back in their lives and realize that they have a pattern of fear holding them back.

We can all relate to that, as can I, and as I mentioned, I bring the reader into the cockpit of the A-10 Warthog, when I was cleared for takeoff the first time, 10 years later, after I started with this dream, and here it was about to come true, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

My heart was beating fast; my mouth was dry; all the things you feel when you feel fear. There was no two-seat models. There were no simulators. So, I’m taking off in this airplane having never flown it before.

And I had a choice, I could choose to taxi back in and give into the fear, or I could choose to take off, afraid. And so I talk about, in my own life, I feel like we learn courage or fear. And I think sometimes people look at people like me they just think we were born courageous. We are not.

Like an athlete, I had to learn to choose to do things afraid. And I thought back to a couple of years after my dad died, and I had my first job, but I had to take a little boat in a little dinghy in the dark of night and go under this bridge with rushing water, and I was afraid to do it, but I chose to pilot that boat afraid.

And then when I got on the airplane to go to the Air Force Academy, with my bras and combat boots, I chose to not give into the fear. I chose to get on the airplane afraid.

And all of that gave me the courage to take off afraid that day and then later to fly in combat and to command in combat. And it was a pattern, like an athlete, of choosing to be courageous, and then realizing that the fear has no power over you.

And that is applicable to everybody’s lives. We can get into a pattern of choosing fear and choosing to be held back from our potential and having that be very familiar. Those who are listening, who have been paralyzed by fear, know what I’m talking about, or you can make a choice today to push past your own fears, to break through them, do things afraid, and then that builds your confidence and your courage when the next thing comes, and you have that familiar feeling again.

So I give very practical ways that you can choose to overcome your own fear.

Allen: … I really love, how practical that is because I think we can so easily give lip service to that. But it’s so important to have actual tools for how to navigate that.

Now, you open up in your book about being a victim of sexual assault, and that’s a very brave thing to do. Would you mind, just for a moment, telling us a little bit about why you did decide to open up about your own journey of healing and why you’re choosing to share that story?

McSally: Yeah, thanks. I shared it to try to provide hope and encouragement to others. And so many women and men have been through similar experiences. And for me, this is something that’s a part of who I am and those who know me, have known that.

Now, at the time that these things happened to me, I didn’t tell everyone, and I didn’t report a lot of things, like many people. But I shared this because I wanted to shine a flashlight for others, that if you went through this yesterday or 50 years ago, there’s hope for you, there’s healing for you. That you can find your own path to peace. And in my case—which, again, is a very challenging thing to talk about when it comes to these awful crimes that are committed against you—to forgiveness.

I share the quote that “Bitterness is the poison you swallow, hoping the other person dies.” And for those who have been through something like this, or some other awful crime or awful betrayal, you still have a choice about how you’re going to have that impact your life. And it’s not easy.

My road was not easy out of the abyss and the darkness that I experienced, but by the grace of God and other people around me, and putting one foot in front of the other and finding, over time, my own peace and my own healing, my hope is that I can shine a little light for others to find their own healing in their own lives now.

Allen: Thank you for sharing that because it is so powerful, and I know so powerful for everyone who has and will read your book. And personally, I’m just so inspired by your story and what you’ve written.

And I think so often, though, when we read other people’s incredible journeys, we can feel empowered in the moment, and then there’s that temptation to wake up the next morning and we remember all the reasons why we can’t. And it could be an excuse from, “I don’t have the money to,” “I’m too old,” or “No one in my family has ever done that before.” Really, it could be any reason. And it sounds rational in that moment.

But how do you continue to push past all those thoughts and fears, to ultimately achieve your dreams?

McSally: No, that is so true. And my hope is that the readers will not just think this is about this other person. This is not about me. This is me sharing some unique experiences I have in order to empower you.

And so, it’s not meant to be something that’s put back on the shelf and not used in your own life. And I would just encourage every single day, be intentional, be mindful, be prayerful about what is it that you are being pushed and encouraged to change today. What are you encouraged to do differently today? What does that look like?

A lot of people’s plans have gotten derailed in 2020. I share my journey of getting derailed, and in fact, had I not been derailed from what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have ended up doing what I ended up doing, which ended up being a blessing.

And so, I would just encourage, in the moment, in the day, intentionally and prayerfully, write some things down, write what maybe spoke to you in the messages that I had, write what you might need to be prompted on what you might need to do differently, and then come up with a practical way to act on it.

And I just want to encourage people: Don’t be held back. Life’s too short. Just put aside the excuses, find your faith, find your courage, find your purpose, and take off afraid. You’re clear for takeoff.

Evans: I love that so much. Well, senator, we can’t let you go without asking probably our favorite question here on “Problematic Women,” and that is whether or not you consider yourself a feminist.

McSally: Well, I think the way the left has defined this is unfortunate, because I’ve joked that my whole life is, I think part of my life purpose is to create cognitive dissonance in people. There’s stereotypes, at first it was “woman warrior” … and now it’s “Republican feminist.” And I mean it with my own definition of it, which is, we are in America, and America means that you can be anything you want to be, that you are not held back.

And that doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy and a girl or whatever else your attributes are. Whatever you want to do in this country, you should have the ability to do.

We should make sure all little boys and all little girls know that. And it’s a passion of my life to don’t just say that you can’t do that just because you’re a girl. It doesn’t matter if you have ovaries; this is about America. And so I hope through my example that it shakes up some people’s stereotypes, but also that it would be an encouragement.

My book is not just for women and girls, but it would be encouragement to those who think they’re being held back from some reason or another, to just break through that glass, break through the stereotype, prove them wrong and meet your own potential. That’s what America’s all about.

Evans: That is an awesome answer. … Well, Sen. McSally, thank you so much for joining the show today.

McSally: Thanks for having me on. God bless you all, you’re cleared for takeoff. And people can go to, and not only can you get my book there, but you can share your own inspiring stories with me.

I’ve heard some amazing stories so far since we’ve launched this book, and so I’d encourage everybody to go to, and you can contact me personally and share your own inspiring stories of how you overcame barriers in your own life, overcame your own fear. I can’t wait to hear the stories.

Allen: Perfect. Thank you. We’ll be sure to link that in today’s show notes so everyone can find that. Thank you so much.

McSally: Awesome. Thank you. Take care.

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