BY VICKEN SOSIKIAN
On a cold winter night a large group of US combat helicopter pilots and their wives had gathered at the home of their platoon leader in Colorado. It was an opportunity for the servicemen and their wives to enjoy a light-hearted atmosphere over dinner, drinks and music. It was an opportunity for the wives to get to know one another and bond; an opportunity for the platoon leader to promise all the wives that nothing would be spared to ensure the safety of their husbands; an opportunity, for just a short while, to have some fun before deploying to Iraq for security, reconnaissance and attack missions during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The pilots flew what is known as the Kiowa Warrior, a combat helicopter, which utilizes .50-Caliber machine guns, 70-mm rockets, air-to-air stinger missiles and Hellfire Missiles. The platoon leader was a “top gun” pilot earning the status by having registered the highest performance marks during flight and weaponry training.
The platoon leader was having a great time seeing all the pilots and their wives enjoy themselves. Everyone was happy, but things got a little more serious when one of the wives approached the platoon leader with tears in her eyes and said: “I am very thankful that you are his leader. My husband respects you so much. He will miss the birth of his first son, but I am comfortable knowing that he is under your command.”
Touched by this vote of confidence, the platoon leader promised to do everything possible to safeguard her husband.
Adrineh Shahijanian was more than their platoon leader. She was their friend and knew each of her pilots and mechanics well. She cared about them and understood the heavy burden of responsibility for their lives and safety.
Shahijanian has been awarded the Army Air Medal and the Bronze Star. She is the 34th female Kiowa Warrior pilot in US history and, likely, the first female Armenian.
“When I first arrived to my unit, there was no female latrine in the pilots’ area. Obviously, there hadn’t been a need for one. I also worked with a few people that definitely liked things the way they were back in the day when only male pilots flew combat airframes. But, in time, even the most stubborn of them had to admit a job well done—whether it be done by a male or female—is a job well done.”
Shahijanian’s mother, Knarik, who worked as the director of the Krouzian-Zekarian Vasbouragan Pre-kindergarten in San Francisco for 29 years, was known for nurturing and caring for all her students. They were like her children and she was like a mother to them. Just in the same way, Adrineh cared for her platoon. She knew each of their difficulties and challenges and, in leading them, she did everything she could to assist them in every way.
Adrineh’s mom was concerned when she learned that her daughter wanted to join the military, and even more, become a combat helicopter pilot. It wasn’t just about Adrineh’s safety. Her father was proud and appreciated the news, but like most Armenian parents, he was concerned about her future. “How will you find an Armenian man? How will you get married and have kids,” he would say.
Adrineh believed in discipline and doing good. She wanted to serve the country that accepted her family and gave them opportunity. She often encouraged others to do so, and explained to her mother that she wanted to practice what she preached. She completely understood her parent’s concern and believed that if she got married one day and if she had children; they would respect her past and value it.
Military policy dictates that combat helicopter pilots would not know exactly when they will be deployed to war. Furthermore, when they are informed of their deployment, they are expected to keep the information fully classified and confidential.
This was especially hard for Adrineh. She was based in Colorado and her parents were in San Francisco. She had no family in Colorado. Her platoon was her family. She would talk with her parents every night on the phone and after being updated about all the developments back home, she would end the conversation by telling her mother that she does not know when she will be deployed—that it can happen any day within the coming month or two. She always made sure to end her conversations by reassuring her mother that everything would be all right.
One February evening she ended her conversation the same way. She just wished she could have had the opportunity to see her parents and hug them and thank them for everything. She knew she was being deployed the following day, but in compliance with military policy, she refrained from saying a word about it to her parents.
The next day, she and about 60 others boarded a plane to Iraq. She explains that often there would be periods of silence on the plane, times during which she could not help but think about the fact that she and her pilots may never return from this mission.
Adrineh did. However, of the eight pilots directly under her command at the time, two did not. Fort Carson’s Third Armored Calvary Regiment, where she served as a platoon leader, suffered the most losses between 2003 and 2005.
Every flight could have been her last. Kiowa Warriors are low flying helicopters, which makes piloting them even more dangerous. Insurgents often targeted them because they knew that Kiowa Warriors are either providing security for an immediately pending ground attack or surveying an area for the purpose of planning a future attack.
“Insurgents would use anything they could to bring us down—from hand-projected rocks, to machine gun fire, to rocket attacks.” Any one of these could have brought the helicopter down and ended it all for Adrineh. However, the entire time she would work to keep her focus on the promise she made to her pilots’ wives.
“Some of our guys were not there to see the birth of their children, so I would organize two-week breaks for the guys to go back home and see their kids.” After days of planning, she had arranged a Chinook helicopter, a large aircraft capable of transporting dozens, to pick up some of her platoon’s pilots (as well as others) and take them to Baghdad; so from there they could go home. Adrineh was happy to make that possible for her guys and with a clear conscience was working with her commander to plan their next mission.
“I have never felt so much anger and guilt as I did when I heard over the radio that the Chinook had been shot down and two of my guys were gone,” she said.
Despite the range of feelings and emotions racing through her heart and mind, Adrineh was a platoon leader and did not have the luxury to take a break. She had to continue her work while putting the trauma she experienced aside.
By the end of her service Adrineh had become an executive officer of some 500 soldiers and reconnaissance helicopter pilots. She was medically discharged in 2004 after suffering injuries when, to avoid RPG fire, she crash-landed her Kiowa Warrior.
“After war, after your injuries are healed, the emotions you had put aside throughout the war begin to surface. It is then that you need to deal with your losses, the damages, the memories,” she explained.
Luckily, there are some good memories as well.
“One of the most memorable experiences was when one day; I came out of my aircraft to talk to some of the local folks with my interpreter in tow. A gentleman in his mid forties read my name tag and exclaimed, “Hye ek???” Just goes to show you, we always connect, wherever we are and whatever the circumstance.” The gentleman invited Adrineh and her interpreter in to his home, where he and his wife offered them some tea and a modest meal.
Adrineh Gouloomian is now a mother of two children. The older child, Garen, recently started attending Krouzian-Zekarian-Vasbouragan in San Francisco, where she was once a student.
“We sometimes stereotype gender roles, not out of bad intent but by habit, and it is perfectly fine to break out of those roles. I believe my daughter will be able to push her limits not because I tell her so but by leading by example. I am a combat veteran but I am also an Armenian wife and mother and I believe all these things can exist in harmony. I am proud of all of my roles in life.”
Adrineh is very grateful for everything she experienced. She believes that all of her experiences happened for a reason and will play a role in her and her family’s life. She encourages Armenians and women to do good and be ambassadors of good, to have an influential role in our society, to never be limited or bogged down. “We all can achieve any and all aspirations and can do what we dream of.”
At a time in our society here and around the world, when we still witness abuse of women, unequal reference and treatment of women, under-representation (or non-existence) of women within our government in Armenia, our armed forces in Armenia and our community organizations, Adrineh’s story should serve to motivate and encourage Armenian women… And men.