Caroline Johnson didn’t just crash glass ceilings as a naval fighter pilot. She just flew right past them.
The Colorado-born aviatrix was one of the first women to fly a combat mission over Iraq following the military withdraw in 2011, dropping bombs on ISIS from an F/A-18 Super Hornet.
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009, she went to flight school in Pensacola, where she was awarded her wings of gold and finished at the top of her class. She then joined the Navy’s aviation team as a flight officer. Deployed on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush in 2014, her squadron was the first to drop bombs on ISIS in Iraq and administered the first strikes into Syria.
Next week, Johnson will pay a visit to Pensacola — this time as an author.
“I’m excited to be back,” Johnson said during a recent telephone interview. “I lived in Pensacola for two years — specifically Perdido Key. My brother is a flight instructor (at Naval Air Station Pensacola). I know the downtown area has just come to life.”
Johnson and her brother are first-generation career military officers. Her grandfather worked in atomic bomb testing for the Navy in World War II. Other than that, she had no affiliation with military life. But she quickly gained an interest in the Navy.
“I loved the core values and the mission,” she said. “I was amazed by the brilliant people — that’s what got me into (the Navy).”
Of course, flying jets was an added bonus.
“Nothing cooler than that,” she said. “There is no better job. Every day you strap on 46,000 pounds of horsepower. You’re one with the jet. You get strapped in, locked up and it knocks the wind out of you. All of the sudden you’re airborne. There’s no more beautiful feeling.”
But even a dream job can come with challenges, which Johnson shares in her book. The U.S. Navy, as well as other military branches, have made headlines in the past for sexual assault and gender discrimination among female service members. In May, the U.S. Defense Department released a survey showing a 50% increase of assaults on women in uniform compared to previous data. Women make up 20% of the military, but were targets of 63% of assaults, the survey found.
As a high-ranking female officer, Johnson said her experience was more discrimination than criminal.
“It was tough,” she said. “I was dedicating my life to this job and there were some that never accepted me as a peer. I was never outwardly hazed, but I was often excluded or assigned menial tasks, or more gender-normative roles.”
Johnson said she also met her share of “incredible” male colleagues.
“There’s just some bad apples that kind of poison the punch.”
It could be lonely to not relate to coworkers. Which is why she found it important to form a bond with her fellow female pilots — the Jet Girls, as she called them.
“Those were the most important relationships during that time in my life,” Johnson recently said on the “Today Show.” “(The Jet Girls) really helped carry me through some challenging times in my life.”
Having a personal life on top of a demanding professional life was another hurdle Johnson faced.
“In 2014, my deployment was on the eve of Valentine’s Day, so my dating life was going really well,” she joked.
During that time, President Barack Obama had ordered the Pentagon to work on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Her squadron’s mission was to help support elections in the country, and then it changed in what seemed like an instant.
“We didn’t know about ISIS, that wasn’t supposed to be (our mission),” she said. “We got a call to return to the aircraft carrier and we proceeded into Iraq.”
“We had to reprogram the jets since we hadn’t been there since 2011,” she added. “We had to rewrite the rules in Iraq.”
Five years since that deployment, the war continues. Last month, U.S. special operators killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Johnson said the news was a “great accomplishment for the U.S.” While she left active duty at the beginning of 2019, Johnson said she has utmost faith in military advisers.
“The troops out there in combat are the most highly-trained people we could ask to be out there,” she said.
That was Johnson’s focus in her last active-duty tour. She taught leadership and recruited future aviators at the Naval Academy.
Now, in the private sector, Johnson is a motivational speaker and serving in the Navy Reserves. It wasn’t an easy transition into a quieter life, and took even longer to accept the title of “role model.” But she hopes her story offers some guidance to people, both civilians and service members.
“Life is messy and throws massive hurdles,” she said. “Being relentless, preparation, taking care of yourself — at the end of the day, what I used in the military resonates with people. It’s about overcoming obstacles.”