The Air Force Academy played host this past week to two distinguished visitors: alumni Col. Tyler “Nick” Hague, an astronaut, and Maj. Caitlin Reilly, a pilot. On Friday, both were awarded the Col. James Jabara Award for Airmanship, which recognizes academy graduates “whose accomplishments demonstrate superior performance in fields directly involved with aerospace vehicles.”
Reilly — who was recognized for her “consistent ability to deliver results, no matter how challenging or unconventional the mission,” as well as for her status as an “outstanding air commando instrumental in the Global War on Terrorism” — is the first woman to receive the award.
During a 2018 deployment, operations headed by Reilly led to 50 airstrikes, protection of 8,000 U.S. and allied soldiers, rescue of three hostages, 274 enemies killed in action, capture of 187 detainees and removal of 23 high-value targets from the battlefield, according to her award citation.
For Reilly, the trip was her first time back at the academy since she graduated in 2007, save one visit for a wedding. The Gazette asked Reilly about the path she took at the academy, her most memorable combat mission and her advice for young women considering a military career. Below are her answers, edited for space.
On finding her way at the academy: ”I took a circuitous route. I actually came here wanting to be an astronaut. I took my first engineering class and realized I wasn’t real good at it and I didn’t particularity enjoy it. At that point, I had to reassess. For about a year I tried to figure out what I wanted to major in, what I wanted to do with my life, and actually whether I was going to stay at the academy. Thankfully, I got to go in the ops Air Force program that they send cadets to do between their freshman and sophomore years. I got to go out to Cannon Air Force Base back when it was an F-16 base, and they took us to all the jobs in the Air Force. I went to the flying squadron on the last day, and I got a ride in an F-16, and that pretty much sold it for me. We landed, and I was like, ‘Where do I sign up for that?’”
On receiving the prestigious Jabara Award: ”When I was sitting here as a cadet, that’s certainly not how I envisioned life. It’s been such a privilege and honor. I still am blown away by it. There are so many people out there in the Air Force doing incredible missions that most people just don’t get to hear about.”
On being recognized as a “female pilot”: “We all seek to be recognized just as aviators, not as female aviators. So that’s always my goal, be a good aviator and I just happen to be a female. I think we’re getting there, and the more women that come to the academy, and the more women that go to fly airplanes, we’ll get to the point where we don’t even have to put that identifier in front.”
On her most memorable combat mission: ”One of the nights we were out there, we were running an air stack for (joint terminal attack controllers) on the ground. Unfortunately, they walked into an ambush that we were not able to see. They’re surrounded on three sides and taking fire on three sides, and there’s a compound next to them shooting at them. We were able to find the machine-gun nest that was in that compound shooting at our guys, and we were able to help work a deconfliction plan. That way we were helping the F-16s drop bombs and the M-29s drop bombs on the different threats around the friendlies. ... That one, to me, was so memorable because when we got back to base, they called us up and were like, ‘Hey, thank you for saving our lives.’ To me, that’s what we’re there to do. It’s not our flying. It’s about keeping those guys alive when they go out there and do those missions. They all got to go back to their families at the end of that deployment, which is really what it’s all about.”
Her advice to young women considering a military career: ”Don’t shut any doors. Do your best at everything you do, even if you’re not 100% sure that’s where you’re going to be in the future. Even if you get put in a position you may not particularly like. Do the best at it. You don’t know what doors that’s going to open.”