Proud to Be: My Life, the Air Force, the Controversy

Proud to Be: My Life, the Air Force, the Controversy

by Kelly Flinn


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An extraordinary young woman. An extraordinary controversy. This is Kelly Flinn's story—the one she couldn't tell when she was in uniform.

"I fell in love with the wrong man."—Kelly Flinn

She is the first woman to pilot a B-52, a charismatic twenty-six-year-old from a proper Georgia family who has always distinguished herself—as a fifteen- year-old at U.S. Space Camp and as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. There, she overcame considerable odds and earned a coveted position as a combat pilot. But nothing prepared Lieutenant Kelly Flinn for the controversy that erupted when the military began an investigation into her relationship with Marc Zigo, a man who lied to her about his marital status and then betrayed her to military authorities. Flinn was forced to resign amid charges of disobeying orders—charges she disputes in this poignant and powerful memoir.

This is the story of Flinn's love affair with flying . . . and the love affair that ended her trailblazing Air Force career. This is also the story of a determined young woman fighting for her rightful place in a military establishment run by men, many of whom are not yet ready to accept a female combat pilot. Flinn reveals examples of hypocrisy and sexism in the military that are, by any standard, infuriating. She rose higher and fell harder, but Kelly Flinn's story is universal, and it powerfully dramatizes the fault lines between our private and professional lives. With disarming candor, Flinn takes us inside her world. We feel her exhilaration as she soars through the sky and commands her own plane,and we share her horror as the love she dreamed of turns into a nightmare and shemust battle the military's sex police behind closed doors. Kelly Flinn has been called "the Hester Prynne of our time," and her life has been depicted in the media as a combination of Top Gun and The Scarlet Letter.

In Proud to Be, she speaks in her own voice—determined, vulnerable, and all too human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780756757533
Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
Publication date: 05/01/1997
Pages: 259
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Kelly Flinn majored in biology at the U.S. Air Force Academy and graduated in 1993. She is the first woman to pilot a B-52. She resigned from the Air Force in 1997 but hopes to serve again. She has lived primarily in St. Louis and Atlanta.

Read an Excerpt

Playing to Win

No one can predict to what heights you can soar, even you will not know until you spread your wings.

Anyone who says that women aren't meant to be worriors doesn't know much about little girls. Little girls are intense, stubborn, and passionate. Some, of course, put their intensity into pushing baby buggies and dressing up their dolls. But others are simply wildcats. They're the fastest kids in the class. They're the terrors of the jungle gym and swings. They play competitive sports to win. They don't mind getting down and dirty in the mud. And they're no less girlish for it.

I was that kind of little girl. I was the baby of my family, with four much older brothers and sisters. (Another older brother, Kevin, died of spina bifida after only one month of life.) For the first years of my life, my role in the family was to be cute. At my Catholic school, St. Monica's, I tried to give the impression of being a perfect student. I sat quietly, day in and day out, in my red-and-black-plaid jumper, trying to please the sisters. But I wore red athletic shorts under my jumper, and the moment I was out of the classroom, there was no stopping me. I was the terror of the playground: fast, furious, competitive. When I was five, I joined my first soccer league. I played on a boys' team--there wasn't a girls' team in Creve Coeur, Missouri, then. When the boys ran around the field trying to kiss me, I'd run the other way. I was there to play--and to win. I was training to beat my brother Don, who'd taught me to play by kicking a soccer ball around the yard with me when he came home from college. Nevermind that he was fourteen years older and a varsity athlete. With daily practice, I believed, I could take him on. I had to be combative, with two older brothers. Getting what I wanted, holding my own, was often a matter of hand-to-hand combat. My brother Tim, for example, used to fight me every afternoon over my choice of TV programs. I could watch whatever I wanted--provided I could get past him to the TV set to change channels. He was eight years older than I, so this wasn't easy, particularly since he had a trick: he'd pick me up by my feet, hold me upside down, and scream: "It's the pile driver!" That usually put an end to the fight, left me screaming and laughing while my father yelled, "Knock it off!" from upstairs. The next day, we would start up again. It was like trench warfare: little progress, many casualties. Tim also used to practice his hockey skills with me in the basement. I'd don a goalie mask and a baseball mitt and grab a hockey stick; then he'd move a few paces back and take slap shots at me with a tennis ball. Every once in a while, he'd body-slam me against our rec room walls. I defended myself pretty well, considering that he was sixteen and I was only eight. It honed the reflexes I'd need for soccer playing. And my survival skills.

Things were different, of course, with my sisters, Patti and Gail. Unfortunately, since they were ten and eleven years older than I, we weren't very close while I was a child. I glimpsed their teenage lives from a distance: clothes, makeup, hair worries, and dates were all part of a mysterious world just out of my reach. Gail was a cheerleader who knew how to have a good time; Patti, who is deaf, was a top swimmer and basketball player. I admired them enormously, but I couldn't really be like them. I tried to play with the dolls they'd handed down to me, but I couldn't figure out how. The dolls seemed like such lifeless things. They were boring. One of them, Chatty Kathy, actually frightened me. I'd inherited her from a neighboring family after their daughter, a good friend of Gail, committed suicide. The doll was eighteen inches long, with brown hair and a slot in her back for a two-inch record. You would insert the record into the slot and pull a string on her back and she'd repeat, "I'm Chatty Kathy," over and over again. I used to have nightmares about Chatty Kathy. The thought of her still spooks me today.

Patti and Gail's Barbie dolls simply stumped me. I just didn't know how to play with them. I'd take two of the dolls by their skinny plastic legs and hold them opposite each other, pretending that they were having a conversation; I'd shake them up and down, move them around, try to create some action. But nothing ever happened. So I'd throw them aside and end up reaching for the yellow Tonka trucks or Hot Wheels cars I'd inherited from my brothers. I'd rush out of my bedroom and into the backyard, climb onto the dirt pile, and toss the trucks to the ground, filling them with dirt, battling with ants and worms, throwing spiders into the back of the cement truck and taking them for a ride. My parents tried to spur my interest in dolls by buying me Barbie's airplane set. I loved the plane: I pictured myself flying around the world, solving mysteries, having adventures. Barbie and friends just tagged along for the ride.

Had there been some little girls in my neighborhood, they might have been able to show me how to play with dolls. But there were just little boys. My best friend was a boy named Tommy who lived next door. He had all the orange plastic tracks for the Hot Wheels car set and was always up for a race or for building a fort in his living room. Or, if we felt like going outside, we'd hike off to our nearby creek, where we'd chase frogs, catch tadpoles and turtles, and cover ourselves head to toe in mud. Being a tomboy wasn't anything I ever thought about as a child. With no girls in the neighborhood, I had no one to compare myself with, and my parents didn't pressure me to be a "real" girl. My mother did try, it's true, to interest me in ballet and tap dancing. But she let those go pretty easily, once it became clear that I wasn't having any of them. She'd learned, early on, that it was virtually impossible to get me to do something I didn't want to do. I never wanted, for example, to wear skirts or dresses. I felt they cramped my style. They kept me from scrambling up jungle gyms and from running as fast as I could in races, beating all the boys. This wasn't much of a problem on school days--I wore shorts under my jumper. But it led to a major conflict when I was seven and first-communion time came around. The ceremony was extremely important to my mother. We were practicing Catholics; we went to mass every Sunday and on devotional days. My mother insisted I dress correctly: white dress, white veil, no shorts. We battled over this for weeks. My mother--as I came to realize when the Air Force turned our lives into a circus--is every bit as strong-willed as I am. So I gave in. I dressed; she inspected me, making sure I didn't have on shorts, and then she went to the ceremony. Little did she know I had hidden a pair of red gym shorts in the car. I balled them up in my hands, took them with me into the school assembly room, ran to the back, hid behind the coats, and discreetly put my shorts on under my dress. Then I donned my white gloves and fell in line for the procession with a big smile on my face.

Puberty changed everything. When you're a little girl, you can basically get away with doing and being whatever you want, provided you have the support and encouragement to do so. But once you start maturing, it's as though you have to make a choice. You have to be a "real" girl, or be an outsider. I was afraid of losing the freedom and fun I'd always known as a child. When I turned eleven and we moved to Georgia, I immediately signed up for all the teams and sporting activities I could. I was scared of becoming a teenager, of the mixed-up world of boys and sex and experimentation of all kinds that lay ahead. I saw the girls around me developing and heard how people snickered at them, commenting on their bras and their breasts. I was mortified at the thought that I could be like those girls. I was terrified of getting my period. I played as much soccer and tennis as I could, thinking that, with so much activity, I could stave off my period for a while. And I prayed that my body would not develop. I just didn't want to stand out for being a girl. I wanted to continue to blend in with the boys and get on with my life as I knew it.

Things changed, however, once I reached high school. I was attracted to boys; I wanted them to be attracted to me. I'd always had a romantic, even melodramatic side. By the end of junior high school I'd filled notebooks with my poetry--tearful odes to love and loss, neither of which I'd ever experienced. The great event at the end of my ninth-grade year was my first date. It was on a Saturday afternoon. My "boyfriend" and I went to see St. Elmo's Fire. My mom had to drive us, of course. In the dark, furtively, he leaned over and kissed me. The earth didn't move. But I came out of the theater feeling much more knowledgeable about the ways of men. At last, I could at least keep my head up when the talk at the lunch table turned to boys and sex. But mostly, I just continued to listen. I had so much to learn.

No one in my family had ever talked to me about the birds and the bees, or even about dating. Or, for that matter, about anything emotional at all. We didn't have the kind of family life that you see on TV shows like The Brady Bunch, where the kids come down before dinner and sit on Dad's lap and hug and talk. My relationship with my parents was much more formal: it was based on love, for sure, and on pride and admiration, but not on sharing deep feelings. For one thing, they were quite a bit older than most parents of kids my age. For another, my father was very rarely home. He was an executive with IBM and traveled all the time, while my mother stayed at home with the kids. So she was incredibly busy during the week, and the few days when he was home were precious. I would ride my bicycle and watch my father while he worked on the house, painting the shutters, fixing the porch, or just watering the flowers.

All week, I looked forward to Friday evenings, when my mother and I would go to the airport to collect him and bring him home from his latest trip. We would always come hours early so that my mother could watch the planes for a while. She'd take a seat near a window and gaze at their takeoffs and landings, totally captivated by their speed and their grace. I quickly caught the same flying bug and soon was sitting, craning my neck up against the glass, holding my face as close as possible to the windowpanes, mesmerized by the mysterious white objects lifting off into the sky. I'd noisily try to guess which plane had my daddy on it. My mother would just sit quietly, staring off into the distance. Becoming a pilot was not a dream she could have entertained as a girl. But I could. And I did.

My mother had been a pioneer as a young woman. She was the first person in her family to attend college. Her mother, Mary (Ikey, to me), had grown up in the Irish slums of Yonkers, New York. She'd left school in sixth grade to get a job to support her nine brothers and sisters and perpetually drunk father. My grandfather, Pop, had been born poor, too. But together they moved up in the world, struggling for success. They gave my mother an iron will and a strong sense that education was the most important thing in the world. She graduated in the top of her class from Mount St. Vincent College, where she studied mathematics and also learned how properly to hold a wineglass and choose a fork. Armed with this knowledge, she became an engineer--one of the first female engineers at M. W. Kellogg, a crude-oil processing company. She met my father there. He'd grown up only a few miles away from my mother, but in an entirely different world. His family was prosperous and lived in a much larger house. My paternal grandfather had fought in the American army in the trenches of World War I and knew all the horror and terror of that very bloody war; he'd been wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. First Lieutenant Flinn couldn't have dreamt that his granddaughter would one day learn to dig trenches and do battle with a bayonet. The thought would probably not have made him happy.

In our family, independence, self-reliance, and strength were valued above all. After we moved to Georgia, I realized that my father had been traveling so much for so many years simply because his work had shifted and he hadn't wanted to uproot us while so many kids were still at home. He'd done it stoically, without complaining. That was our way. If we had problems, we worked them out on our own. This characteristic served me poorly when I found myself in trouble with the Air Force.

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