Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour was recognized as America’s First African American Female Combat pilot by the Department of Defense. As a police officer at the age 24, she decided to become an Officer in the Marine Corps and then a combat pilot, and only three years later was the United States Marine Corps’ first African American female pilot.
Vernice has appeared on Oprah Winfrey, CNN, Tavis Smiley, NPR, and many other media, and is a bestselling author and successful entrepreneur. Today, she sits on the Comcast/NBCUniversal Joint Diversity Council and was formerly a diversity officer liaison to the Pentagon.
Vernice has been awarded as a pioneering pilot, including her commanding role in technology and engineering, and has received two honorary doctorates. She was also the first African American Woman on the Nashville Police Department’s motorcycle squad, and played running back for the San Diego Sunfire women’s professional football team!
In this conversation, Vernice and Chris talk about Leadership, Engagement, Overcoming Obstacles, Innovation, being Gutsy, and Diversity.
Watch the episode here:
Listen to the podcast here:
Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour – Being First, Being Gutsy – Virtually Speaking Episode 6
Joining me is Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour. She was recognized as America’s first African-American female combat pilot by the Department of Defense. As a police officer at the age of 24, she then decided to become an officer in the Marine Corps and then a combat pilot. Three years later, she was the United States Marine Corp’s first African-American female pilot. Vernice has appeared on Oprah Winfrey, CNN, Tavis Smiley, NPR, and many others. She’s a best-selling author and a very successful entrepreneur. She sits on the Comcast NBCUniversal Joint Diversity Council and was formerly a diversity officer liaison to the Pentagon.
She has been awarded as a pioneering pilot, including her commanding role in technology and engineering, and has been awarded two honorary doctorates. She was also the first African-American woman on the Nashville Police Department’s motorcycle squad and was even a running back for the San Diego Sunfire in Women’s Professional Football team. Vernice and I talk about leadership, engagement, overcoming obstacles, innovation, being gutsy, and diversity. Join me with Vernice.
Vernice Armour, thank you for joining me on the show. Are you ready?
I don’t get ready. I stay ready. Come on. We save the world with little bubble gum and duct tape. I’m ready, and let’s roll.
Thank you so much. I am excited. You are one of the greatest speakers out there. I’ve known about you for many years. I’ve booked you for many years, and it’s so wonderful to have you on.
I’m not giving you more commission, but I might take you on the road to introduce me if you keep saying stuff like that.
It’s a crazy time in our world. It’s an interesting time to be talking to you. You’ve been somebody who’s talked about diversity, communication, how we connect with each other, and being ready for any situation. There’s a lot of cool things that you are able to talk to people about these days. I want to go back to the beginning because I’m curious. I have some questions for you at the beginning of your life. At some point, you said to yourself, “I want to be a police officer. I want to be in the Marines.” Was it one and then the other or both? What had happened?If you don't give yourself permission, who will? Click To Tweet
I said I wanted to be a cop that rode a horse downtown. Mounted Patrol. At the age of four, I got my very first pony. At the age of six, I’m like, “I’m halfway there.” I did not want to become a Marine until my freshman year of college.
When did you become one of the other? It was a cop first.
Before I was a cop, I was a soldier in the Army. I enlisted in the soldier in ‘93. I became a cop in ’96 and a marine in ‘98.
Do a lot of people do Army and Marines?
No. A lot of people aren’t police officers and then the military, then they get out and become a police officer. I had an unorthodox journey and experiences, but it made everything spicy. If we’re not having fun, what are we doing?
You said something to me about an op-ed that you were writing.
Before we get into the op-ed, I’d like to give people a little background on who I am like, even what do I talk about? What’s the foundation of FlyGirl? Yes, that is my call sign. I like Top Gun. Iceman, Maverick. Not to be confused with J.Lo. I flew attack helicopters, two tours in Iraq. One of the main leadership principles that I bring to Corporate America is engagement, but specifically permission to engage. What does that mean? When I was out shooting missiles over the desert, I couldn’t just shoot without permission. The ground controller would say, “You have permission to engage. Clear that.” Here at home, there are no ground controllers in life. You are your ground controller. If you don’t give yourself permission, who will?
In the Corporate America space, associations, affinity groups, things like that, the plethora of audiences, senior leaders, I talk about engagement with our employees, workforce, our stakeholders, and the marketplace. How are we engaging in a dynamic, innovative, strategic way in every moment? The landscape is like the battlefield, the marketplace is always shifting. That was the foundational principle. On that, I built the gutsy move in your gut. It takes guts to do it. When you think of bold moves inside of innovation, technology, and leadership, are we willing to do what it takes to stay relevant? Just like battle, you stay relevant or die. Blockbuster, Netflix, AOL, Yahoo, Google. Yahoo could have bought Google for $1 million at one point. We all know the stories. When our defining digital moment is here, for my CIOs or CTOs out there, are you going to be ready to make that bold, gutsy, innovative move that’s going to move your organization to the front.
You’ve connected well with the CIOs and the CTOs, information, and technology. That’s probably because of the Marines background that you had. Were you specialized in something besides flying the combat missions, the combat helicopters, or was it just from flying a helicopter, you’re tech-savvy?
Aerospace is a STEM field, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and at headquarters Marine Corps, I was the diversity officers that their liaison to the Pentagon. I was on a committee that was working on a policy for all the armed services. Being part of that committee, I went to a lot of the technology conferences as the Marine Corps liaison, like women in Aviation, Tuskegee Airmen, Black Engineer of the Year awards, Women of Color in STEM awards, diversity liaison officer. I was able to go to quite a few of those conferences each year and connect with people in the space. It was a great opportunity.
How are we creating leaders in the pipeline if I’m going to talk from a diversity standpoint, not a diversity speaker, but do I get booked because of having the education side of diversity and a little bit of the experience as well, black, gay, woman? Yes. Some people would, let’s say, check a lot of boxes. It’s not about checking the boxes. It’s about what experience are we creating for our workforce. Our workforce is enabling our leaders, being the backup, being the front up taking our organization to the front. When our leaders make those bold, gutsy moves, we have to have an organization that’s going to be ready to back up the move that we made.
When you first got into the Marines, did you know that you were going to become the first-ever to do what you did?
When I first showed up at the recruiting station, I didn’t know I was going to be the first. The Officer Selection Officer, that’s what the recruiter for officers is called. The OSO said, “If you make it, you’ll be the first.” I was like, “This is 1998. Are you kidding me?” I would’ve thought the first would have been some old woman by then.
How did he know? Does he have the charts or something in front of him?If you want to question something, question something else besides the ability and the capability. Click To Tweet
One of the senior officers in the Marine Corps generals had put out a call looking for the first black female pilot. He said, “Who will be the first? Will it be you?” I remember reading that article again and again. The conversation can easily be had, “Did you come the first because you were black or affirmative action?” It’s like, “I graduated number one out of the last 200 to graduates from flight school. I graduated number one in my class, and I flew attack helicopters, Cobra AH-1 Super Whisky attack helicopter.” I did a great job, not blowing up myself like I’m the best or the greatest, but if they want to question something else besides the ability and the capability.
Nobody can let people at the front of the line in that scenario.
If I bring it back around to what we’re talking about here, Corporate America, our organizations, speakers that organizations choose to be on their platform to deliver a message to their entire workforce or to their senior leaders or their middle managers or frontline managers, their top winners in Aruba. What’s our culture? Who are we as a team? One mission, one goal, one team, what are we up to? What are we doing? How are we making sure our private face matches our public face?
Published in the Toronto Star. We expect it’ll be published in several of the areas. I’ll also be posting it on LinkedIn. The subject matter is about the situation going on in our country. As of this recording, George Floyd was killed several weeks ago, and there’s a huge conversation going on in our country about police reform, Black Lives Matter, who’s speaking up, who isn’t, what are we doing, what can we do? As a former police officer, former soldier and marine, former diversity officer, and current black gay-woman, that’s a lot of dots. I found myself sitting on my deck thinking, “What can I do? What do I say? If I’m thinking about those, and I have all these dots, what about the people that don’t have any dots or very few dots? How are they feeling? What are they thinking?”
I knew that I wanted to help bring my expertise, experience, perspective, and insight to my senior leaders who are leading organizations through this very tender space. This is not about politics. This is about being proactive. This is about how are we bringing our people together to not have the conversation that a lot of black families will allude to. It’s about a new conversation. How are we moving forward, acknowledging some truths and creating some new environments? As a cop, and military person that formerly served in a National Guard unit, both of which were on our streets when the protests were getting out of hand, I can imagine how they were feeling with their community, the American people.
When I watched the police officer and the whole George Floyd incident, it’s tough. I was heartbroken. I knew that I wanted to help facilitate a new conversation. I wanted to be an advisor to those leaders. Whether it’s a mayor, state representative, a politician in DC, a chief of police, how can we, number one, create a new culture? It’s not going to be an easy fix. We’re talking about the very fabric and DNA of some of our organizations when it comes to policing. What do we, as Corporate America, do, and how do we have a voice in this? We acknowledge what’s not working, look at best practices, and do what is working. That’s where the new conversation lies. That’s what gutsy, bold leadership is. That’s what permission to engage and engaging in an amazing way looks like.
I thought of the fact that you probably have had to look at things from the perspective of the police, where they’re coming from, and you can identify with where they’re coming from, as far as how we police the streets, how we look at others, how we identify a threat or somebody that is of interest or somebody that we should be concerned about. You’ve seen it from both sides. That’s an interesting perspective.
When I got out of the academy, through training, and my rookie year, and I was like, “I’m going to crack down on crime. I’m going to help my community. I would go to the tough neighborhoods.” I knew I’d find warrants, suspended licenses, drugs, the black neighborhood. What I was doing was over profiling and policing black men and women, my brothers and sisters, my community, which all black, brown, yellow, and especially the Black community. Being a black person, even I couldn’t see it. Even the good cops get caught up.
It’s something that I’ve been grappling with because it’s not about a bad cop. How do we truly create a new culture? I bring this back around to some of our corporate organizations outside of the Black Lives Matter Movement, but whether we’ve had an M&A, Merger and Acquisition, and we have two companies coming together, and it’s like, “We’re this. We’re legacy this.” It’s like, “No, we’re together. One mission, one goal, one team. How do we create a new culture moving forward together?” It’s all about the mindset, culture, and team.
How does a leader navigate in these times where there’s so much fear, resentment, anxiety from all sides in every way? Leaders are probably scared to leave.
That’s why I have on the shirt, Got Gutsy. We don’t pay leaders the big bucks just because of being able to look at the data. There’s the leadership instinct, the things where we’re not always going to have the empirical data to make a decision from, but we’re going to have to lead from our gut, lead from our heart, lead from what we know is right. In the Marine Corps, it’s a leadership principle. It’s called moral courage. We have the moral courage to stand up for what’s right. Honestly, I’ve never seen a time like this, where major brands are putting statements out there, posting on their websites. Some people say, “All lives matter.” Yes, all lives do matter. If my house is burning down, I want the fire department to come to my house.
Not saying your house doesn’t matter, but my house is burning down. If people can be open to looking at what’s happening from a different vantage point. Just like in our organizations, we might have opposing sides, but at the end of the day, we usually want the same thing. We want to accomplish the mission. We have different ways of looking at it. How do we come together, create the solutions, and move forward together? It is a challenging time. Our leaders are going to need to be gutsy, stand up, and speak up because there is no neutral. Silence is consent.
When you were coming up in the ranks in the military and the police, you were not a leader at first. You were a beat cop. In the Marines, you were beginning in your career there. Did you notice that in those families that you’re supposed to be in that you were an outsider, that people were looking differently at you, that people were jealous of you or resentful of you? You were going to do something that maybe they wanted to do and you were better than them? What were the things you were seeing, and how did you deal with them? How did you have the strength to say, “I’m going to overcome this and I can still become who I want to become?”Opportunities don't go away; other people take advantage of them. Click To Tweet
Let me address the first point that I wasn’t a leader. I was a beat cop, a line cop, every Marine is a rifleman, and I was a leader, even though I didn’t have the title. That’s not true. Anybody that is a Marine, the title is leader. In any given moment, in the heat of battle, as a Marine, an attack helicopter pilot, or the police officer walking down the street, I had the decision of life or death in the palm of my hand. When I look at some of our organizations, healthcare, finance, people’s economic lives, depending on that organization, our economy, there’s so much. We are leading organizations and brands that are helping our American community, friends, families, neighbors thrive or trying to scrap to survive.
We have a direct impact. That’s why many of our brands have those foundations, philanthropy, and the giveback. It’s an amazing thing. Did I have to overcome a lot? Sure. One of the things I say is, “Even the average white guy has obstacles. Everybody has obstacles.” All the guys in training with me had obstacles. The key is how do we acknowledge the obstacles? Don’t give them power. They’re not invisible. We see them. How do we keep going for the solution? We got the KPIs, revenue in this year, goals for next year, we have a new launch with our pharmaceutical, finally got its FDA approval, generic is already out there, but this has been in development for many years. We’re launching it. There are many things that we have to overcome. How do we stay focused on the solution and accomplish the mission? One mission, one goal, one team. I’ve said that several times, but that is it.
At a young age, you must have been instilled with great knowledge of how to mitigate your life, how to look at your goals, and achieve them. That’s something that you had to learn or maybe it was innately in you.
I always talk about, “Nobody comes out the womb qualified, knowing all this stuff.” We didn’t even know how to walk or talk or anything. Everything I’ve learned through my experiences, and ironically enough, as a kid, I was bullied. I could not speak up for myself. I didn’t take up for myself. Not until I went through experiences, in the army, then the police academy, then getting out on the street, did my confidence take a boost up every time. I couldn’t go up to a drunk, belligerent guy and say, “Excuse me, sir. Could you put your hands behind your back, please?” It didn’t work that way. There’s always an opportunity if we take it to grow. Life is awesome. Opportunities don’t go away. Other people take advantage of them. Remember that.
There’s so much to you, and you’re so inspiring. There are many things that you have to share. I appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me about you, what you believe in, and what you’d like to share with people.
I wanted to give you a little virtual presentation there and close it out professionally. In aviation, we always say, “On time, on target, professional throughout. In order to be successful, you get to get gutsy.” I’ve enjoyed this time with you. Thank you for having me.
Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It was great to talk to you, and I’ll talk to you real soon. Thank you so much, Vernice.
About Vernice Armour
Vernice was born in Chicago, IL in 1973, and moved to Memphis, TN after her parents divorced when she was three. By the age of four, she knew she wanted to be a police officer that rode a horse downtown. She received her first pony as a gift on the Christmas day following her fourth birthday and her dream quickly started to have a foundation in reality.
In 1991, she graduated from John Overton High School for Creative and Performing Arts where she was very active in the music program, class vice president, a member of Mu Alpha Theta (mathematics honor society), and The National Honor Society. In 1993, the future combat pilot enlisted in the Army Reserves and joined the Army ROTC program while at Middle Tennessee State University. During an Army ROTC career day, the seed of becoming a pilot was planted when Vernice saw the image of a young Black female in an Army flight suit. “Now why didn’t I think of that!” was her first thought!
In June of 1996, after a brief stint as a Nashville Sheriff’s Department correctional officer, Vernice took a break from college to accept an invitation to the Nashville Police Academy. She graduated in December 1996 –and later became the first woman of color on the Nashville Police Department’s motorcycle squad. She graduated from MTSU in December of 1997 with her B.S. in Physical Education: Emphasis in Exercise Science. With the aviation seed in full bloom, Vernice was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps on December 12, 1998, and on her way to flight school.
When Vernice finally earned her wings in July 2001, the ambitious pilot ranked No. 1 out of both her class of 12 and of the last 200 to graduate. She made the Naval Air Station’s prestigious Commodore’s List, received the Academic Achievement Award, was the top graduate in her class, and went on to make history as the Marine Corps’ first African American female pilot.
After flight school, Vernice was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton near San Diego, CA, piloting the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter. While there she was Camp Pendleton’s “Female Athlete of the Year” and two-time titleholder in their “Strongest Warrior” Competition. Deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Vernice was recognized by the Department of Defense as America’s first African American female combat pilot. Vernice flew above the deserts of Iraq in her missile-equipped attack helicopter, engaging the enemy and scouting the roads from her cockpit, making sure they were safe for her fellow Marines and soldiers on the ground. Upon leaving the military after the completion of two tours in Iraq, Vernice launched VAI Consulting and Training, LLC. She now resides in Atlanta, GA with her daughter Noah…her gutsiest move yet.