Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt has been breaking through gender barriers in the Air Force for the last two decades. In May, she became the first female commander of a combat fighter wing, leading a 5,000-member unit. In an interview posted Wednesday on the ABC News website, Leavitt spoke with ABC correspondent (and Vice Presidential debate moderator) Martha Raddatz about her experiences.
Macho culture pervaded the military when Leavitt entered in 1992, she told Raddatz. Just one year earlier, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Robert Barrow, the 27th Commandent of the U.S. Marine Corps, said in a congressional hearing, "If you want to make a combat unit ineffective, add some women to it.” It wasn't until 1993 that Defense Secretary Les Aspin force the military to stop restricting women from flying in combat.
Leavitt became the first woman to take advantage of the new rules.
Reflecting on her decision to becoming a fighter pilot in the early '90s, Leavitt, now 45, told Raddatz: "They said, 'You realize, if you go fly fighters, you will be the first, and there'll be some attention.' And I said, 'Well I don't want the attention, but I want to fly flighters more than anything." She may not have wanted the attention, but according to individuals Raddatz interviewed, Leavitt has been an inspiration. “Regardless of your gender, I think everyone’s going to look up to her,” Capt. Patricia Nadeau said.
Maj. Gen. Lawrence Wells, who flew with Leavitt in combat in Iraq, echoed those sentiments to Fox News in May. "She has everything she needs to be a great commander."
Clarification: Language has been added to clarify that Leavitt is the first female commander of a combat fighter wing.