Imagine it’s hot—desert hot—and the strange place you’re in is dangerous. Every stranger is a potential threat. The conversations around you take place in a tongue you don’t understand, and menacing looks are being directed your way. Suddenly, the dangerous nature of this place decides to reveal itself. The rounds begin to fly, splintering the wood of the structures around you. Death buzzes past, centimeters from your head. The screams of terror are understood in every language. The enemy has you pinned down, and you realize there is no escape for you and your fellow war fighters. You reach for the radio and call for close air support. The iconic sound of the Cobra’s blades can be heard chopping the air in the distance, fast approaching, and carrying with it your hope of survival. Vernice Armour, the first female African American combat pilot, swoops in from overhead in the Marine Corps AH-1W SuperCobra. Wielding the awesome power of the 20 MM Gatling cannon and the side mounted Hellfire missiles, she clears a path for the Marines to escape.
This is not where this incredible story begins, however; its humble roots lay in Tennessee. The daughter of Gaston C. Armour and Authurine Armour, Vernice Armour was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1973. After her parents divorced when she was three, her story changed settings to Memphis, Tennessee. It is here she would flourish and reach her true potential and prove herself to be an exemplary individual from an early age.
At the age of four, her sights were set on becoming a mounted police officer. Her dedication would prove to be unwavering. Even graduating from John Overton High School for Creative and Performing Arts in 1991 was not without accolades. Vernice distinguished herself as a laudable student, graduating as a member of both the Mathematics Honor Society (Mu Alpha Theta) and the National Honors Society. She continued to excel, attending Middle Tennessee State University and graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Physical Education. Along the way she fractionally achieved a childhood dream. In 1996 Vernice became the first African American female to become part of the Nashville Police Motorcycle Squad. Being a bellwether became a recurring theme throughout her journey; throughout her career, Armour would continue to lay the foundation for hundreds of women to come after her.
The notion of becoming a pilot was firmly planted in her mind after seeing an African American woman in a flight suit. Armour can recall the moment vividly. As she put it, “When I saw that woman in the flight suit, it changed my complete perspective and planted a very strong seed. Because of that I'm here today and have had the experiences that I've had.” Because of this, her law enforcement career proved to be short lived. In December of 1998, one year after graduating from MTSU, she became a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps.
Becoming a member of this elite fighting force is no easy task in itself. Possessing the knowledge and fortitude to strive to be a pilot is an even more commendable goal. As her previous achievements indicated, she proved to be an outstanding individual. After receiving a commission as a Lieutenant, she still regards the claiming of the title “Marine” as one of her greatest accomplishments. In an interview with Unsung Heroes, Armour said, “To earn the title of Marine, I can honestly say the two proudest moments of my life was when I walked across that stage and I got my badge and became a police officer...and the second moment when I walked across that parade deck with the U.S. Marines across my chest, you know, that Eagle, Globe and Anchor.” She graduated first in her class in July of 2001 and received a prestigious Commodore’s List award. She had achieved her goal of earning her “wings,” becoming the first African American female pilot in the Marine Corps’ history.
As a newly minted pilot, Armour would be stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. At Camp Pendleton, she was assigned to Marine Helicopter Light Attack Squadron 169 of the 3rd Marine Air Wing. There, she honed her skill as a pilot of the amazing and powerful AH-1W SuperCobra, a 200 MPH, 3000 horsepower, 14,000-pound beast armed with a variety of missile options and a 3 barreled 20MM Gatling cannon capable of expelling 700 rounds per minute (weapons, as it were, she would later use to save the lives of fellow Marines and soldiers). Wielding this power is a task not easily accomplished, and an incredible responsibility. Lieutenant Armour, to no one’s surprise, would continue to distinguish herself while stationed at Camp Pendleton. Armour would prove to not only be smart but incredibly athletic as well. She would go on to claim the 2001 title of Marine Corps Female Athlete of the Year, and would twice win Camp Pendleton’s annual Strongest Warrior Competition.
Her first of two deployments came in February 2003. Here, the gravity of her situation would begin to set in on her. Armour remembers the danger clearly: “There were people on the ground, trying to take us out of the sky to kill us. It was a huge reality check. All the training came into laser-sharp focus.” It was in these days that her name was officially cemented as the first African American female combat pilot.
The anecdote that opened this profile, as it is turns out, is a true story. As Armour would later retell the story, she was out flying a mission. Having already been on patrol for a little over an hour, and now running low on fuel, Armour and her co-pilot received a call that troops were surrounded by the enemy and required close air support. Realizing the importance of the mission, as the location had a cache of weapons that could later be used on fellow Marines, she and another supporting aircraft opted to push forward. Flying north of their target, a cemetery, they circled back and located the target building. After the first unsuccessful attempt to fire her last remaining missile, she recalibrated her computers and attempted to fire again, this time successfully. The missile took out its target building and provided an escape route for those trapped Marines. She only later learned that those Marines had escaped successfully. While standing in line at a random doctor’s appointment, she began a conversation with a Marine in front of her. He told her that he was there to have shrapnel removed from his leg—shrapnel he had received while serving in Iraq with the 11th MEU. Much to his surprise, she told him she also was deployed with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit as a Cobra pilot. He went on to tell her how a Cobra had saved his life when he was pinned down in a cemetery. The two connected the dots and soon realized that Lt. Armour was the pilot that fired that missile and he was the Marine whose life was saved. In a sincere moment, without thought or consideration of her gender, he thanked her for saving his life. It is in this moment that the respect given to her by subordinate, fellow, male service members truly shows the impact she has had on the military. Serving side by side is not only an honor, but a right, and one that should no longer be denied to the brave, courageous and honorable women of our nation.
To have your name added to the extensive and hallowed history of the Marine Corps is not something to be glazed over, and as Armour herself put it, “I'm standing on their shoulders.” The Marine Corps’ proud tradition of “Honor, Courage, and Commitment” has helped sustain The Marine Corps for 240 years. Having an achievement worthy of notation in its history is a truly incredible feat. Vernice Armour’s impact will undoubtedly be remembered for generations to come. Her sacrifice, her calling to be a Marine, will hopefully lay the path for those behind her to accomplish amazing things as she has. In fact, she has already paved the way for fellow women to compete and earn their right among men in combat roles. Three female Marines would later complete the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry training in 2013, training that was previously closed to women. Trailblazers such as Vernice undoubtedly helped open these avenues by performing at the same or even higher levels as their male counterparts, proving their valor under pressure and dispelling the notion that women are somehow weak.
I for one will always be proud to call her a fellow Marine, regardless of her gender. All one can ever ask for is to be judged by their accomplishments and nothing else, and based on this, Vernice Armour is truly a person to be admired.
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