Brooklyn-born Amira Talifi, (not her real name) is a helicopter pilot I served with in the Army National Guard. She is one of seven children, the only one who is not a doctor, a lawyer or in finance. She flies a MEDEVAC Blackhawk helicopter. Her parents wonder where they went wrong.
When her parents came to America they were determined their children would work hard, go to college and then law school, medical school or into business. Asian families that come to American, whether from Beirut, Baghdad, Bangkok or Beijing, are known for pushing their children toward professional success. Amira followed the family program until age 20 in 2008 when she enlisted in the New York Army National Guard as a Chemical Specialist. She chose that field because the armory she trained in was near her home in Brooklyn and the career field paid a $20,000 bonus.
During her first two years in the Guard, she continued to attend college, though she switched her major from Philosophy to Industrial Organizational Psychology. “I thought it made sense of the Army and how they do things,” she said. While she switched her major, she continued with a minor in French. But it was her ability to speak Arabic, which she spoke at home, that proved much more useful when she deployed to Iraq with a Military Police unit from Queens, New York.
In 2010, Amira and her Military Police unit deployed to Iraq. They were attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.
“When we first got Iraq we were under 82nd for about three months, then with 3rd Infantry Division,” she said. The leadership of 3rd ID “approached my commander about getting females to come with them on their civil-military engagements. Iraqi females would come in and needed to be searched.”
“Whether we were the primary searchers or just supervising the Iraqi police women searching, they needed women,” Amira said. “Then my commander said, ‘I have an Arabic girl for you.’ So I ended up going on every single one of those missions.”
Amira speaks fluent Arabic. “The Iraqi dialect took a while for me to pick up, but once I did, I was good to go,” she said. “I think I was pretty useful. I like being actively engaged.”
The desire to be actively engaged led Amira to switch from security to aviation when she returned from deployment in April 2011. “I like being an expert,” she said. “That’s what attracted me to being a pilot.”
The switch from security to aviation became complicated. “New York had no slots for aviation,” she said. “People were on like a three to five-year waitlist. In New York, you go to the board. You do everything that you have to do, then you wait for your flight seat to come up, and then they give you two weeks notice, or a week’s notice, and you pack your bags and head down to Fort Rucker (in Alabama) for flight school.”
She went to Pennsylvania and was accepted for the warrant officer flight program, even before she was officially a Pennsylvania National Guardsman. “My full-time job was for the New York National Guard, and I didn’t want to leave that until I had my flight seat. So, Pennsylvania was nice enough to let me sit for the board, even though I was not a Pennsylvania National Guardsman. That’s not something that they normally do,” Amira said. “When they sent me to flight school, so I switched to Pennsylvania and haven’t looked back since.”
The plan at the time was to become an NYPD officer after Flight School. But after flight school, the plan changed. Amira moved to Pennsylvania to get in her required flight hours without the 100-mile drive each way from NYC.
“After being in flight school and, just thinking like long-term, what I want my life to look like, I don’t think I would be happy as a cop.” She said, “It’s not really my personality type. I realized I would like to make a career flying. Not necessarily helicopters. I like flying Blackhawks and doing Army missions, but airplanes interest me also, and I like the lifestyle of a commercial pilot. It’s nowhere near as fun as flying a helicopter. It’s just like, I mean helicopters are super exciting. But I don’t know if I want that excitement all my life.”
She likes the intermittent schedule of the National Guard—one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, maybe a few weeks of school here or there. “It’s an escape from the real world,” she said. “You go away and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a soldier again’.
The reason I’m not active duty is because I like having a separate life and having my civilian life, my own apartment and all that.”
In the Army the biggest step for an enlisted soldier is to be promoted to sergeant. Suddenly you are in charge. And the senior leaders, if they are good, do their best to move you from the culture of “the guys” to the unit leadership. An even more jarring transition is to become an officer. Your drinking buddies become the soldiers who salute you. Amira had that transition when her training overlapped with her former military police unit. They were training at the base Amira was assigned as a pilot. Her current unit was packing to leave while her former unit was arriving. She was now an officer, meeting up with people she served with in the enlisted ranks.
“I went over to their barracks and saw all my friends,” she said. “The people that I had been there in the dirt with. I showed them my uniform. They’re like, ‘Holy shit, Amira, you really did it. You’re really a pilot.’”
Amira was clear that the move up to the warrant officer ranks put her at the bottom of a different hierarchy. “I may be a Warrant Officer instead of Specialist now, but I’m just a junior pilot,” she said. “I graduated flight school and the learning has just begun, but I know that being a pilot is not like you just graduate and bam you’re a pilot. It’s a lifetime of learning, but that’s what I signed up for.”
Five Years Later
I interviewed Amira several years ago shortly after she left flight school and was anticipating her first flights as Blackhawk pilot. In the years since we spoke, she has moved to central Pennsylvania and is one of the pilots in the MEDEVAC company that is part of the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Flight crews train on different schedules than the other soldiers in an aviation unit, so I only spoke infrequently to Amira in the years since she became a Blackhawk pilot. About three years ago, she went to school and became a fixed wing pilot. She got a job with a regional airline. She is a pilot in the Army and a pilot in civilian life.
Her choice is not unusual. Although an airliner is vastly different than a combat helicopter, a lot of the skills are the same. Many men and women who fly in the military have aviation jobs in civilian life. In fact, one of the Army air traffic controllers who guide pilots in the 28th is a regional airline pilot in civilian life.
Amira also has a quirky presence on Facebook unlike any other Army pilot I have followed. Her page is jokes and comments about life in general and life as a pilot in particular.
Her sunny face on Facebook and her radiant smile on the flight line cover serious thinking and choices on her part. She started college as a philosophy major. Though she switched to a business major, she speaks with passion and insight about classical and contemporary philosophers and about all the choices that add up to a direction in life. Amira is a Muslim woman in the U.S. Army, a combat veteran of Iraq, and a MEDEVAC pilot who could be called to serve in a war at any moment.
While I was still serving with the 28th I wanted to write about Amira for an Army publication, but she gently refused. It would have been fun for me to write about her, but she lives in a culture that profoundly hates the media. Soldiers, from Generals to enlistees are mostly suspicious of the all media, even their own media. So even if I wrote about Amira for an Army publication the soldiers she served with would be negative about her simply consenting to an interview.
Amira is just over five feet tall with long black hair nearly to her waist that she ties up under her helmet to fly. She often flashes a bright smile, has a wicked sense of humor and is both an airline pilot and a MEDEVAC Blackhawk helicopter pilot, wearing a uniform for both jobs. Did I mention she is funny?
Some of the funniest things she says are about dealing with men, both in an out of the Army. Recently she posted this on Facebook:
How to get men to stop talking to you:
“You look exotic, where are you from?”
“Oh I’m from the islands”
“Oh I’m from the islands”
I never flew in her aircraft as a civilian or in the Army. MEDEVAC helicopters don’t carry passengers. But I would be happy to fly with Amira at the controls of any aircraft. And it is interesting to see through social media how she navigates life in 21st Century America.