A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Kyleanne Hunter, one of the first female Cobra helicopter pilots in the U.S. Marine Corps and a strong, unapologetic and beautiful woman. We quickly recognized a kindred spirit between us, and I asked if I could interview her for my blog as well as re-post some of her blogs on The Pole Story. She graciously agreed. What struck me about Ky's writing was that despite clear external differences in occupation and career, there was a great deal of similarity in our struggle to define ourselves as women through non-traditional roles. Read on to find out more about the amazing Ky.
"I'd rather be looked over, than overlooked" - Mae West
I never really had a choice. I was always taller than the average girl, but was definitely not a boy. Physically, I kept up with the boys from 4-year-old soccer team; perhaps a portend to the future being captain of the boy's waterpolo team in high school, beating my male counterparts on the endurance course and PFTs in the Marine Corps, and racing in men's races on the bike. I'm 5'11", and, shall we say, have curves; still definitely not a boy. Even my name, Kyleanne, stands out as unique. I stand out in a crowd. Not exactly overlooked.
However, the past decade of my professional life has, on the surface, has pushed gender neutrality and conformity. "We're all Marines," we were told, starting at OCS. "Woman Marines" has become as cringe-worthy as a racial slur. Uniformity, order, and discipline were drilled into us along with the core values of honor, courage and commitment. My time in the USMC was the time of the Nation's longest war. A time when I went from optimistic post-college girl, full of spit, fire and donning designer shoes, to battle-ready Marine, trained to close with and destroy the enemy through fire and maneuver.
Through OCS, TBS, Flight School, Squadron Life, and deployments I lost "Kyleanne" and found Candidate -> Lieutenant -> Captain Hunter. A rank-name construct that is gender-race-creed neutral. Necessary for order and discipline and execution of commander's intent. This is what wins wars, secures our Nation, and makes crowds ohh and ahh at the precision and lock-step of ceremonial drill.
It also has secondary effects. It allows us to think of ourselves as a collective "Marines" rather than individuals. In war, this makes it easier for us to sacrifice ourselves and our friends for a greater good, and to kill the enemy. Detachment is necessary for success. Individualism must be overlooked. Personality stymied. We become interchangeable parts in the Marine-Air-Ground-Task-Force, known for our names, rank and Military Occupation Specialty; by extension, learning not to think of ourselves or our personal wants. "Weapon-Gear-Self" is the order of precedence of care. And generally by the time self is reached, I'm too tired to think about it.
When I entered the Marine Corps, I was fully aware of the "service" component of military service. I was, however, unaware of just how much it would change my perception of self. For several years, I put on olive drab green or desert brown, and, in the name of supporting the country I love, worked to ensure that Kyleanne would be overlooked for the betterment of the Corps. Success and acceptance went hand-in-hand; to thrive, which in turn meant the MAGTF thrived and wars could be won, I blended in. I became hard when I had to be hard, and reacted on instinct and training.
It wasn't until I came to the House of Representatives as the Marine Corps Liaison that the loneliness of being overlooked in the name of honor, courage, and commitment came to weigh fully on me. The energy I had poured into ensuring I fully became "Captain, USMC" my peers had poured into creating relationships, marriages, homes and families. The hours I spent piloting a Cobra helicopter over the desert, they spent building a life to ensure comfort, love, and security in their old age. Nights I spend sitting, shivering in a conex box wondering, in the few moments of solitude I got, "what the fuck am I doing here?" they spent in lovers' arms. My 20s and early 30s - years women typically give to someone to start a foundation of life together - I gave to everyone else. As I am beginning to shed the layers of green and brown and transition into civilian life, this brings to the surface intense feeling of loneliness, fear, and overwhelming anxiety that I have missed some higher life purpose.
I do not regret one minute I spent as part of great collective that is the USMC. People have often remarked that I am a "strong, independent woman." And I am. But, in order to be so, I need to be Kyleanne. Today I found out that I was accepted to every graduate program to which I applied. In a small way, it was a sense of validation that I am still wanted and relevant as an individual. That my time as part of the collective is just a step in become more of an individual.
Last year, I was in a position to start doing things for me. It started with racing my bike. The pain I felt was mine, and mine alone, and the victories were a result of long hours of very personal suffering and dedication. On the bike, I was needed and wanted for being me. I developed a personality that became known (and maybe even loved) in the regional elite pelaton. I developed a relationship with my coach that pulled me through bouts of depression and anxiety, and life-long friendships with teammates and competitors alike. For the first time in nearly a decade, a community wanted me as much for who I was as what I could do. I was being looked over, as it were, not over looked.
Transitioning into the civilian world, I'm still not fully sure who Kyleanne is, nor who she will become. I have spent so long worrying about not being "too-Ky" that I don't know how long it will take to full separate myself from being part of an institution and openly and completely embrace the individual. The irony of my years of burying myself in order to be overlooked, is that as I enter my new life, this will cause me to constantly looked-over. There are few female attack pilots out there, and fewer still with legislative liaison experience, and exactly zero others who also race bikes. So I'm moving on, knowing full well that I am in a position to once again stand out. And am embracing this as an opportunity to probe myself and others with curiosity. And challenge the world to go ahead and look me over. Just don't be surprised when I look back.
To read more of Ky's blogs, go to: www.welcometokyland.blogspot.com.