Lieutenant salutes ruling by Aspin


May 01, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

LEXINGTON PARK — A headline in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified Lt Lisa M. Nowak. She is a flight officer.

The Sun regrets the error.

LEXINGTON PARK -- From the cockpit of the Prowler, the Navy's gunmetal gray and orange-tailed electronic warfare jet, Lt. Lisa M. Nowak's world looks a little different today.

This week Lieutenant Nowak's routine 40,000-foot ascent into the bluer-than-blue Atlantic skies aboard a modern war machine took on a new horizon. Combat -- actually facing off against a real enemy -- is now an acceptable mission for female aviators like Lieutenant Nowak.


"[We can] do the job we've been trained to do," says the 29-year-old, still sizing up the meaning of the order Wednesday by Defense Secretary Les Aspin to put women aviators in combat roles.

Talking about herself and other female aviators as "Navy assets" who could be used more efficiently, Lieutenant Nowak displays only the cool demeanor of a military professional and not the excitement she says she's feeling.

The opening this week of combat roles to women means that Lieutenant Nowak and the eight other women aviators here at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station could be called on to do their job in real combat.

As a naval flight officer, Lieutenant Nowak, sits behind the Prowler pilot and operates electronic warfare equipment designed to confuse the enemy by jamming radar and simulating missiles.

Having a shot at combat not only increases the danger in her life, but it will increase her military career opportunities.

"During the time I've been in the Navy, they've been progressing towards this," says Lieutenant Nowak, her 5-foot, 4-inch frame sporting the aviator's olive green flight suit and heavy black work shoes. "I was definitely hoping to see it while I was in the Navy. I definitely didn't think it would happen this week."

On Wednesday morning, soon after she arrived for work at the naval station's Systems Engineering Test Directorate, word came from Washington that Secretary of Defense Les Aspin was pulling down that seemingly rock solid wall -- combat exclusion -- and permitting military women to fly fighter jets, bombers and attack helicopters.

Before she knew it, Lieutenant Nowak and four other women were aboard F-18 fighter-bombers, winging their way to the Pentagon for the historic announcement.

Lieutenant Nowak views the historic decision and the opportunities it presents in much the same way she has viewed her career path so far.

The choice one makes, she says, "is based partially on your performance, but mostly on the needs of the Navy."

She doesn't display much emotion about the effect the policy change will have on the sexes.

"Men and women have been flying together every day for quite some time and now we're going to fly into combat," she says matter-of-factly.

"The men and women who've been flying together, it's already just a matter of course. It's what we do. Nobody cares who's male and female. You wouldn't get here and do this job if you weren't trained for it."

But what about a woman aviator's personal life? Does choosing a combat squadron preclude family, children?

"If you're pregnant, you can't fly ejection seat aircraft," she said. "But that doesn't mean women aviators can't have families. I have a 14-month-old son.

"Men have to worry about family issues, too."

And in the Nowak family, both husband and wife face the sameissues when it comes to family and career. Lieutenant Nowak's husband, Richard, is a naval flight officer in test pilot school here.

The prospect of leaving her son, Alexander, to go to war would effect her as it would any parent, male or female, she says.

"Mothers and fathers know it's very hard to leave a child. But I know later he [would] be proud of his parents," says Lieutenant Nowak.

Plus, says the aviator, "The whole point of this is not for men or women or helping our careers. To me, it's a sound financial decision. We can effectively use the taxpayers' money, the bTC Navy's money to do the job we've been trained to do."

And what about those all-male squadrons, the swagger and bravado epitomized in the movie "Top Gun?"

"If they do have doubts," Lieutenant Nowak says, "as soon as they get the chance to experience [a coed cockpit] they will support it also."

Growing up in suburban Montgomery County, Lisa Nowak knew no one in the military. Her father is a computer consultant; her mother raised three daughters. She flew in planes like everyone else -- to get somewhere.

But the National Air and Space Museum was a favorite Washington excursion and a trip to the United States Naval Academy as a high school student impressed her.

Once an academy midshipman, Lisa Nowak knew aviation was the only path she would take.

"When I decided to put on a uniform,' she says, "I decided I was willing to defend my country."

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