Rescue Pedros, Mary Jennings Hegar, Humility and the Value of Others

Major MJ Hegar is a heroine. She saved not one but three helicopter crews in Afghanistan, as well as multiple US ground troops, and she did so all while being abandoned in combat by her cowardly peers and held back from her true potential by The Man.

At least, that seems to be how her story is being told.

US Air Force Major Mary Jennings Hegar was a US Air Force HH-60 helicopter rescue pilot in Afghanistan in 2009. (The Air Force rescue helos are know as Pedros — and, yes, they use a sombrero wearing mascot that would probably offend someone if they thought about it long enough.)

On July 29, 2009, her mission as the lead Pedro 15 went infamously sour. Hegar received a medal — and a Purple Heart — on that mission, and she now uses the story of that mission on the speaking circuit while she advertises her upcoming book — the movie rights for which have already been optioned (Angelina Jolie is rumored for the role of Hegar). A recent publicity campaign article for her book describes her riveting personal story:

Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, covered in blood and hanging off an Army rescue helicopter, saw the muzzle flash of a Taliban fighter and laid down a dozen glorious rounds of return fire

Hegar’s own chopper had been shot down minutes earlier while rescuing three injured soldiers near the Afghan city of Kandahar.

The Air National Guard vet survived the botched rescue operation and was awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross With Valor.

Not only that, she seems to think her wingman was a coward:

the pilot of Pedro 16 refused to land. According to Hegar, he had lost his nerve

She recalls the pilot of Pedro 16…had tried to lie his way out of his failure to act…

Not only that, but she did it all while the military she so sacrificially served was unjustly trying to hold her back:

Her most remarkable act of bravery came after she returned home, when the Texas native took a powerful stand against the military’s ban on women in combat.

Since it isn’t obvious from Hegar’s publicity materials, it is worth noting that Hegar was the co-pilot (the non-flying second-in-command, in a manner of speaking) of an HH-60G Pave Hawk with a crew of five, callsign Pedro 15 on that day in 2009. This is how the Air Force tells the same story:

Falling under heavy enemy fire, Pedro 15 dropped off a pararescue team and retreated from the hot landing zone. [Aerial Gunner TSgt Tiejie Jones] established critical communication with higher command and relayed the details of their dire situation.

The Pedro 15 crew then voluntarily risked their lives to return and rescue their patients and pararescuemen from the ambush. Once on the ground, Pedro 15 started taking heavy machine gun fire, damaging multiple systems. The crew waited for the patients to be loaded before evacuating with the battered aircraft to safety.

[Flight Engineer SMSgt Steven Burt] assessed the helicopter and urged a safe landing as soon as possible. Pedro 15 landed less than two miles away, where Burt and the pararescuemen transferred the patients to Pedro 16 which flew them to safety.

[LtCol George Dona], Hegar and Jones were extracted on the skids of a U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopter. The actions of the crew on Pedro 15 saved the lives of the three patients and ensured the survival of the crew.

That version, which never singles Hegar out, sounds a bit more team-oriented than Hegar’s version of events.

It turns out that while Hegar has had the better publicist, she hasn’t been the only one to tell the story of that mission. Her pilot, LtCol Dona, mentioned the incident in an interview in 2014:

We took a sniper round through the window (and into my rib Kevlar protection) when picking up three injured US Army soldiers. We took off right away to avoid the gunfire and were unable to extricate the Army soldiers still on the ground.

After deciding as a crew that our PAVEHAWK was still operational, and besides some blood on the console we were still operationally effective, we decided to go back into the middle of the firefight to get the injured. We flew in extremely low and fast, but took machine gun fire right away when landing in brownout conditions. We could hear the rounds going through the engine, airframe, and fuel tanks.

Fortunately, we got the soldiers out but our fuel and hydraulics were too far damaged. It was hard to control the AC. We flew about two miles away and realized we couldn’t go any further.

I put it down quick; it was a slightly rough landing. As we all took a deep breath we came under fire from another hill. After 18 minutes of being defensive on the ground from gunfire, my wingman transloaded the wounded soldiers.

My crew and I luckily latched on to the skids of an OH-58 Army gunship that was providing our cover.

Dona used the first person singular only twice — referencing the bullet hitting his vest and taking responsibility for the not-so-good landing (a landing, by the way, to which Hegar attributes a career-debilitating injury).

The rest of the time he said “we.”

Not only that, but his recollection and the Air Force article reveal some “simplification” in the way Hegar’s story has been portrayed.

For example, her helicopter wasn’t “shot down,” nor did it precisely “crash” as her publicity materials claim.  In fact, the helicopter on which she was riding was actually shot “up” while on the ground, and her pilot then took off and her pilot flew it as far as he could before he landed.  (Even Hegar described it this way in 2009.)

Notice, too, that their rescue came after about 18 minutes on the ground, which Dona described as “defensive” hunkering down. Despite being on the ground for that long, only as they were lifting off on the Kiowa did Hegar — and she alone — discharge her weapon. She actually seemed proud of that fact:

My crew from that day, we kind of tease each other [because] I was the actually the only person who returned fire that day.

She uses that “return fire” as her lead-in to her activism on women in combat (and a prop for the title of her book), but the truth may be more complex.

No one else fired their weapons, despite being right next to Hegar. Even Hegar wondered if she’d get in trouble for firing her weapon — which wouldn’t have been an issue if she’d unquestionably needed to fire her weapon.  Given the context, it seems more like she was raising a middle finger (via 5.56mm round) to the enemy as she left — not actually employing her weapon because it was necessary. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with her shooting her weapon — in an active firefight, few would truly question her claim of muzzle flashes.  But it hardly justifies framing her pot shots as an act of heroism — particularly when everyone around her appeared to shrug off the threat.

To summarize:

  • MJ Hegar was riding in a helicopter while LtCol Dona flew it and landed under fire.
  • A single round went through Hegar’s windscreen, hitting Dona in the chest and hitting Hegar with shrapnel.
  • The crew of five determined the status of their craft and Dona landed again, with all five of them taking more fire.
  • Dona then took off again and flew as far as he could manage before they, as a crew, assessed the aircraft would soon be unflyable and opted to land.
  • All five of them left the aircraft and set up a defensive position until other helicopters picked them all up.
  • All of them received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

So where are those other four crewmembers in Hegar’s story of personal valor and overcoming adversity?

Why did the co-pilot — whose role included monitoring the ground situation while the pilot did the actual flying — get a movie deal while the rest of the crew goes on about their lives?

Have their pivotal roles in the event — flying the helicopter, manning the gun, keeping the helicopter airborne, providing life-saving medical care for the patients — been downplayed merely because they’re men?

Hegar comes across as the one-woman wonder who saved the world from enemies in combat and enemies at home all by herself — and she’s proud of it.

But that perception doesn’t seem to be entirely true.

It’s possible that perception is entirely the work of her publicists, and Hegar is, in fact, the nicest, most humble person you’d ever meet. If so, she has really failed to rein in her handlers — and her story — with a more forthright version of the truth.

Then again, Hegar describes herself as an “activist” — one who tried to open combat roles to women for an explicitly self-serving purpose:  She believes women should be allowed to serve in combat not because the US military needs women to be in combat, but because women need combat experience to get promoted. And any good activist needs a compelling personal story of deprivation, sacrifice, and victory over adversity.

Hegar has used her story to advance the women-in-combat mantra — vaunting herself and denigrating her Service and her peers in the process, apparently intentionally. In a fairly blatant example, she claims that despite “everything [she] had just proven,” she was denied the opportunity to become an Air Force Combat Controller.

While portrayed as Air Force gender bias, her story conflicts with her own admission she is medically unqualified to fly because of a back injury (from LtCol Dona’s “crash”), and she carries both shrapnel and “residual PTSD.” If her back injury is so bad it disqualifies her from flying that alone certainly disqualifies her from CCT duty — but the fact she’s a woman is the angle she’s decided to publicly play.

The story Mary Jennings Hegar tells of July 29, 2009, is, indeed, a gripping and fascinating war story. It is also the story of four other people on that aircraft — some who may have done arguably more than she, though she was the only one wounded, and she was the only woman.

The point here isn’t to denigrate her service, just to point out that — in case you missed it in the re-telling — Mary Jennings Hegar wasn’t the only one there that day.

While her soon-to-be-published book — notably titled “Shoot Like a Girl” so that it, like Hegar’s activism, focuses on gender — will hopefully give some credit to the other four people who were on the helicopter with her and also did heroic and skillful things, that’s not the story she’s telling now — and it’s not the story Hollywood is buying.

While Hollywood often glamorizes and personalizes events to make a movie more compelling, it is disappointing to see a veteran apparently do the same — especially at the cost of her comrades in arms — as a prop for a social activist platform.

Then-Capt Jennings’ Distinguished Flying Cross citation reads as follows:

The President of the United States takes great pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Captain Mary O. Jennings for heroism while participating in aerial flight as a HH-60 Pave Hawk Co-pilot near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, on 29 July 2009. On that date, Captain Jennings flew in a two-ship formation, Pedro 15 and Pedro 16, tasked with the urgent medevac of three United States soldiers injured when their convoy was attacked. While Pedro 16 provided cover fire and Shamus 34 and 36 expended Hellfire missiles and .50 caliber rounds, her crew executed a tactical approach to a brown out landing alongside the vehicles.

Immediately, the aircraft received a round through Captain Jennings’ windshield, injuring her in the arm and leg. After the aircraft safely lifted, she refused to return to base while part of her team was on the ground. Despite the shattered windshield and wounds to her arm and leg, Captain Jennings and her crew courageously risked their lives to return and rescue the Pararescuemen and patients from the ambush. Once on the ground, Pedro 15 started taking accurate belt-fed heavy machine gun fire, damaging multiple systems.

Resisting the urge to escape, she held the Pilot from taking off until the patients were loaded. On takeoff, Captain Jennings saw the number one engine was about to flameout due to fuel loss. She saved the lives of all on board by immediately selecting the number two fuel tank. The disabled aircraft had to land less than two miles away, and she was on the ground taking fire for 18 minutes before being extracted on the skids of an OH-58.

On takeoff, Captain Jennings observed muzzle flashes from small arms fire which was aimed at the crew running toward Pedro 16 and provided cover fire for them with her own weapon. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Captain Jennings reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.

Also in the Congressional Record and the 129th Rescue Wing.

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