Caroline Johnson was an unlikely aviation candidate. A tall blonde debutante from Colorado, she could have just as easily gone into fashion or filmmaking, and yet she went on to become an F/A-18 Super Hornet Weapons System Officer (WSO).
She began her military career at the United States Naval Academy in 2005, bristling against the strict rules and regimented life but loving the challenge and the friends she met along the way. Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Economics in 2009, she joined the elite Naval Aviation community and began flight school in Pensacola, FL. In 2011, she was awarded her wings of gold and designated a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), more specifically an F/A-18 WSO. Finishing at the top of her class she was awarded the Paul F. Lawrence award as the #1 strike fighter graduate and also recognized as the overall Top Graduate.
Then Aug. 9, 2014 came. She and her naval unit were at Mount Sinjar in Iraq when they detected two armored personnel carriers and a humvee shooting fireballs through a village, causing men, women and children to run for their lives. Overhead drones confirmed it was ISIS, and an attack was authorized by the U.S. secretary of defense. Johnson slid into her back-seat spot in the F/A-18 Super Hornet and prepared to strike the enemy, making her one of the first women to fly a combat mission over Iraq since 2011, and the first woman to drop bombs on ISIS from an F/A-18.
“That was my first attack. I have no regrets about it,” said Johnson.
“It was a somber moment. You realize you’re taking human life to protect other human life. That’s not natural for humans. Killing from a distance is hard, albeit the easiest. The gravity of the moment was not lost on me. But that’s what I was trained to do. I was executing the order and was able to protect a village of innocent people who would have been massacred.”
They were tasked with waiting 72 excruciating days in Iraq and Syria before being authorized to use lethal force. Watching ISIS operate during that time was brutal.
“They are a horrible crop of humans, with an utter disregard for human life,” she said. “To witness that, day in and out, to witness mass murder, you have such an understanding. I’d trained for so long to protect innocent people on the ground, and when I saw that violated, and to finally use my skills to do that and use weapons, there is no higher calling.”
Her memoir, “Jet Girl,” was released this month. She’ll be at Covered Treasures Bookstore in Monument for a book signing on Dec. 1.
At the Blacklions, Caroline completed her SFWT level II, III, and IV qualifications, she earned her Combat Mission Commander designation, and she also graduated with honors from the University of Oklahoma with a Master of Arts in Administrative Leadership.
Johnson stayed active in the cockpit until 2015, when she transitioned into teaching at the Naval Academy where she taught leadership and recruited the next generation of aviators as the Aviation Operations Officer. Currently in the Navy Reserves, Caroline continues her service as an advisor and liaison officer.
Transitioning to the private sector, Caroline co-authored Jet Girl with Hof Williams, and has become a professional speaker.
As reported by The Gazette, in her memoir she also cites the bullying she experienced as a woman in an elite performance role as playing a hand in her decision to leave. The majority of her comrades treated her equally, but it was the few who didn’t that soured her.
“The majority of my experiences were wonderful, but there were bad apples that made the experience miserable,” she said.
“The instances weren’t outwardly criminal, but they were hard to overcome, even as strong and resilient as I was, and at the top of my game. Some days were miserable.”
She hopes those experiences help spark a conversation and improve the environment for future generations.
“In hindsight, I’m glad to go through it. I grew so much,” she said. “It gave me a better understanding of people who are bullied. If we can prevent the bullying and bad apples from poisoning the bunch, we can be a stronger team.”
Photo credit: US Navy and Caroline Johnson via Jetgirlusa.com
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