As a child, Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal imagined flying among the stars, thousands of miles above the Earth’s surface.
Today, she is one of eight female pilots ever to fly the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and the only black female pilot in U-2 history.
A Bronx, New York, native, Tengesdal also is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general, and she was recently was selected for promotion to colonel.
"I have seen the curvature of the Earth," Tengesdal said. "Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I never take it for granted."
Aug. 1 will mark the 60th anniversary of the U-2, making it one of the few aircraft to operate in the Air Force for more than 50 years.
"The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers," she said. "I am extremely proud of being the first black female U-2 pilot in history."
The U-2 provides high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in direct support of national objectives. The aircraft enables the capture of imagery and delivers intelligence to decision makers worldwide.
These missions often are at altitudes of about 13 miles. Pilots are required to wear full pressure suits during flight, similar to those astronauts wear. That suit, along with a specialized helmet and the U-2’s bicycle landing gear make it arguably the most difficult aircraft to land.
"Every aircraft I've flown has something unique," Tengesdal said. "The U-2 is no exception. I enjoy the challenge of landing on two wheels."
She’s no stranger to challenges. The colonel acknowledged that her childhood featured many opportunities for her to stray down the wrong path.
"Drugs and alcohol were prevalent in my hometown, but I was influenced to pursue other aspirations," she said.
With guidance from her mother and teachers, she said, she excelled in high school, particularly in math and science. After high school, she attended the University of New Haven in Connecticut and graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Afterward, she attended the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, commissioned as an ensign in September 1994, and attended flight training shortly after.
The first aircraft she flew was the Navy's SH-60B Seahawk helicopter, used for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, anti-ship warfare and special operations. She loved the versatility of the aircraft and its capabilities.
In 2004, Tengesdal followed her dream of flying higher and cross-commissioned into the Air Force, joining less than 1,000 pilots who have been part of the U-2 program at Beale Air Force Base in California.
"I'm incredibly fortunate. It's surreal," Tengesdal said. "From my time in the Navy to my experiences in the U-2 program, I like to think I've played a part in helping some of the troops on the ground get home safely."
Throughout her career, Tengesdal has logged more than 3,400 flight hours and more than 330 combat hours. "I have been truly blessed to have experienced all I have during my time in the military," she said.
She has flown at the edge of space and witnessed a shooting star from the inside of a cockpit. She achieved what no African-American woman ever had before.
"My career field is very male dominated, but I hope I have helped other females with similar aspirations to realize this is an option,” she said. “I think we are all limitless as to what we can accomplish."
Five female soldiers took historic first steps by completing the Ranger Assessment Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, last month.
In January, the Army announced it had planned to conduct an integrated assessment at the Ranger School in April. This assessment will help to determine whether and how to allow women to have combat arms jobs in the Army.
Nineteen percent (5 of 26) of the women who participated in the course on Jan. 30 completed it. The women who complete Ranger School in April will earn a certificate and will be allowed to wear the Ranger tab. However, they will not be allowed to serve as Rangers. Women are currently prohibited from serving in direct combat, but the assessment is considered a giant leap forward for female soldiers.
“This first iteration of an integrated RTAC has provided significant lessons learned as we conduct a deliberate and professional way forward to the integrated assessment in April,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of Maneuver Center and Excellence, Fort Benning, in a statement.
When I talk to some combat veterans, I often get a sense they’re stuck somewhere in between.
Between deployment and home, service and family, the codes of military service and the norms in a civilian workspace—the particulars are different for each vet, but most seem to feel it.
I work as a figurative painter, but sculptor Christopher Wagner and I spent 2014 creating portraits of 10 combat veterans. We wanted to go through something difficult with vets and use the time with each of them to talk about their return from combat. We pushed ourselves as craftsmen, working live and simultaneously with each model, negotiating lighting and pose—literally stepping on each other’s toes.
“Betweenness” drove these portraits. Chris and I see the sculpture and painting of each vet as two halves of one whole effort to portray an individual’s return and celebrate the lives he or she lives now. By calling attention to the space and the differences between my portrayal and Chris’s, we mean to respect and celebrate the gaps between our experiences. We may never close those gaps, but by listening to each other, we can reach across them. We want to invite viewers, as they look at both painting and sculpture, to imagine the unique, healing individual who posed between those two objects and who remains caught partly on the field of battle, still somewhat stuck between there and home.
Setting aside the image of the uniformed Army sergeant just off the plane from Iraq or the G.I. in black-and-white photos from a simpler time, we sought to relate to our subjects primarily as our neighbors and secondarily as former combatants.
So we asked them how they’d like to pose.
Each brought the props of their daily lives to the studio. A guitarist, a gymnast, a squash player, a vintage rifle restorer and even a naked bike rider were part of the larger group.
Conversations went from how Vietnam veteran Lance Grebner cooks a great tamale to what it sounded like when World War II veteran Bill Keys was shot by a sniper firing from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I painted my best effort at an accurate portrait, and Christopher sculpted his. Between those efforts at portraiture, we concentrated uninterrupted by each other, phones off, for about 40 hours per veteran. The portraits, the objects on display, are byproducts of that time spent talking. As part of Between Here and There: Portraits of Veterans, we wrote about their stories and encourage you to respond to them.
Between Here and There: Portraits of Veterans is on display at the Blue Heron Gallery on Vashon Island, Washington, February 6 to 26.
The shift is part of an integrated assessment to help determine how and when to open combat arms jobs to female troops.
“We’re going to let statistics speak for themselves as we go through this,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said during a recent virtual town hall meeting with soldiers. “The main thing I’m focused on is the standards remain the same. In order to earn that tab you have to do all the things necessary to earn that tab. We want to try a pilot to let women have the opportunity to do that.”
The Army issued two messages last fall requesting any female soldiers interested in signing up for Ranger School as students or advisors. The response was so large, the service had to whittle down the number of candidates allowed to participate.
Forty seats will be available for female candidates in each iteration of the Ranger Training and Assessment Course. All candidates are required by the Army to complete the pre-Ranger course prior to Ranger School.
“Secretary of the Army John McHugh approved the participation of both men and women in the spring 2015 Ranger course assessment,” Lt. Col. Ben Garrett, an Army spokesman said in a statement.
According to Garrett, the assessment is scheduled to begin on April 20. The course has approximately 60 women scheduled to participate and those who meet the standards and graduate from the course will be awarded the prestigious Ranger tab.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs yesterday signed a letter that will go to all transitioning service members, urging them to continue serving the nation as civilians in their communities and in their new jobs.
“We trust that you will accept this challenge and join ranks with the business leaders, volunteers, and public servants in your communities. You have made your mark in uniform and represent the strength of our Nation,” the letter read. “We know you will do the same as veterans, setting the example for the next generation of veterans to follow … It has been our greatest privilege to serve with you, and we look forward with pride to what your future holds. We know it will be extraordinary.”
The 32-star letter is part of a Call to Continued Service campaign that will include a focus by the chairman and a coordinated outreach effort from across the services that reinforces the call to service in the letter.
“It’s my honor to speak on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in support of this initiative,” Dempsey told the military leadership and attendees who represented organizations that support service members, veterans and military families.
The organizations included TAPS, the American Red Cross, Operation Homefront, the USO, Habitat for Humanity International-Veterans Build, Got Your 6, Blue Star Families, the National Military Family Association and many others.
Call to Continued Service
The Call to Continued Service, Dempsey said, “isn't the first time in our history we've done something like send a message to the field … about life in civilian communities for service members as they transition out of uniform.”
In 1949, five-star Army Gen. Omar Bradley, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to the force coming out of World War II that was titled, What We Owe Our Country, Dempsey said.
“I'm told that before World War II that [younger] generation was criticized for being soft because of the ‘luxury of freedom,’ -- that's actually the phrase that Omar Bradley used -- and then they were called to war and became what we know today as the Greatest Generation,” the chairman added.
Before 2001, some may have called the younger generation “the Nintendo generation,” he said, “and then along came the wars and we found out just what they were made of.”
After the chairman and the Joint Chiefs signed the letter, a panel of four service members who are in the process of transitioning into civilian life spoke with the audience.
A Positive Impact in any Organization
Army Sgt. First Class Dustin Parchey is a combat medic assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, called the Old Guard, at Joint Base Fort Myer-Henderson Hall. He has 18 years of service and is looking at options for transitioning out of the Army.
“As leaders in the military and for all service members, it's our duty to make a positive impact in any organization we're a part of,” he told the audience.
“As I get ready to transition and head into my civilian life after this, I plan on carrying the same values and the work ethic that I learned in the military into my next profession,” Parchey said.
“I believe that everything I do can be traced back to my time in the military,” he added, “and I want to make the best impact I can.”
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