Before reviewing Mary Jennings Hegar’s riveting account of her career as a combat helicopter pilot, we must get something out of the way: Angelina Jolie is in talks to play Hegar in a TriStar movie adaptation, and Jason Hall (American Sniper) is working on the screenplay.
Let's hope Jolie and Hollywood live up to the book. Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front (Berkley, 304 pp., ***½ out of four stars) is a well-written, sometimes disturbing memoir of how Hegar overcame obstacles, including male opposition, in her Air Force and Air National Guard service.
She served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. She was shot down and wounded on a rescue mission and received the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with valor. She retired with the rank of major.
After leaving the service in 2009, she was the lead plaintiff in Hegar v. Panetta, a November 2012 class-action suit against the Defense Department to overturn the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy and allow women to serve in combat. The government reversed the policy in January 2013.
Shoot Like a Girl recounts Hegar’s remarkable journey from childhood to choppers and beyond. She starts dreaming of becoming a pilot while watching Han Solo dodge asteroids in Star Wars and seeing fighter planes soaring out of an Air Force base near her home in Texas. Her stepfather, a Marine who served in Vietnam, is a constant source of encouragement, telling her she can do anything she sets her mind to.
The title comes from a compliment a gun range instructor pays Hegar after she qualifies as an expert. He tells her she shoots like a girl, then goes on to explain “women are physiologically predisposed to being excellent marksmen,” and that he tries to get men to shoot like girls.
Hegar tells her story with candor, admitting her mistakes, but learning from them and always maintaining a won’t-stop perseverance that keeps her moving forward. She thoughtfully weaves in small primers on military procedures — why things are done the way they’re done — that are illuminating and fascinating. These are especially helpful to readers without military backgrounds.
There are dark moments, episodes in which male supervisors brush her off, talk down to her, or refuse to take her seriously.
The absolute worst is a horrifying assault in a flight surgeon’s office. The incident and its aftermath trigger Hegar’s decision to leave the Air Force and enter the Air National Guard. She never mentions it again, but the casual brutality haunts readers and forces them to wonder what some other women in the military have endured.
Hegar gives a detailed account of her Afghanistan deployments and what it’s like to fly helicopters while being shot at. We see the camaraderie among flight and maintenance crews, the satisfaction of successful rescue operations, and the despair of failed missions. All of this leads to the fateful day when Hegar is piloting a Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk under fire to rescue ambushed U.S. soldiers, and what happened after.
Hegar’s actions helped alter U.S. policy to open combat positions for women. Since then, military branches have been uneven in fulfilling it and President Trump criticized the policy change while campaigning.
As a compelling, unforgettable story of courage, Shoot Like a Girl — with or without Angelina Jolie — shows women can fulfill any role.