JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (2/15/2012) -- Flipping through the
pages of a comic book, I recognize the same story line I've read a
thousand times: A superhero uses special powers to defeat a
malicious villain with no regard for his own safety. We idolize
superheroes because they keep us safe at any cost. We feel
comfortable with this story-line and its bright comic book colors,
courageous muscle- built leading men and happy endings we can
Highlights from Staff Sgt. Jessica McMahan's 12 year Air Force
career are displayed, Feb. 10, 2012. McMahan deployed twice to Iraq and is
a Bronze Star recipient. McMahan is a combat broadcaster with the
1st Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base Charleston - Air Base.
Photo by USAF Staff Sgt. Nicole Mickle
In the real world, we do not have the ability to make lightning come
out of our fingertips or move buildings with our bare hands. Most of
the villains in our lives aren't as clear as day and we don't always
have a happy ending. But, as farfetched as comic book heroes are in
our day-to-day lives, there really are heroes walking among us.
My hero happens to be a fellow non-commissioned officer, a
mother and a friend. Her name is Staff Sgt. Jessica McMahan, a
broadcaster with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron and she believes she
is as ordinary as a woman can be. But, if you ask anyone who knows
her, chances are they will tell you how extraordinary she really is.
As a 20-year-old file clerk in Boca Raton, Fla., if you told
Jessica that six years later she would be in Iraq loaded down with
60 pounds of gear and an M-16 rifle slung over one shoulder and a
video camera over the other, she would have told you that you were
out of your mind.
"A friend of mine at the time was planning on joining the Air
Force and really wanted me to meet her recruiter," said McMahan. "I
had never really thought about joining the military before I met
him, but before I knew it I was leaving for basic training."
That was February 2000. During her fourth week of boot
camp she found out she was going to be an Air Force
"Initially I was a little bummed at
first because I wanted to work in the medical field but
being a videographer was my second choice so I knew I was
lucky," said McMahan.
After graduating from basic
training, she went to the Defense Information School at Fort
George G. Meade, Md., for technical training. It was during
the final weeks of training she fell in love with her new
"We were documenting the Trooper Youth
Leadership Camp. We followed these kids around for one week.
It was such a great experience getting to tell their
stories,” said McMahan. “I realized how lucky I was to have
this job and I was excited about the future stories I would
After technical school she headed to her
first duty station, Scott Air Force Base, Ill. She spent the
next three years documenting all types of ceremonies.
Her next duty station was Vandenberg Air Force Base,
Calif. This is where she gave birth to her daughter Chloe.
"Chloe changed me. I had big dreams about seeing the
world but now I was more content to stay close to home so I
could be with her,” said McMahan.
In 2006, she was
notified that she was deploying to Iraq, her first
deployment. She was embedded with the 4th Infantry Division
and the 1st Cavalry as well as other infantry units in
Baqubah, Iraq. She was one of the few Airmen and females
“When I went on missions, I would
often imitate the guys I was out on patrol with. I wanted
them to be confident I knew what I was doing so they would
continue to let me go out and document their missions,
She spent months in Iraq documenting
house-to-house raids, weapons searches, convoy patrols and
combat humanitarian operations by coalition forces. She also
had to assume the role as a gunner on a Mine Resistant
Ambush Protected vehicle on several missions. She spent more
than 700-hours in the field, more than twice the average
time for videographers.
Her partner was U.S. Army
Sgt. 1st Class Lawree Washington who considers McMahan his
“She can watch my six (back) any time,” said
Washington. “When the worst things happened she was my
friend. She will always be my friend.”
On days she
spent outside the wire, the 100-pound McMahan was hauling 60
pounds of gear. When her unit came under fire, she stopped
documenting with her camera and switched to a combat role
with her rifle.
“I know how important it is to
document what's happening, but there were times I had no
choice but to drop my camera and use my weapon.”
During one such event, her unit was targeted during a house
search. She continued documenting in the face of direct
fire. Coalition forces killed four al-Qaida terrorists that
day and detained another seven.
She also came to the
aid of a wounded Iraqi soldier. She made sure he received
medical attention until he was evacuated from the
battlefield. Her footage of an ambush on an Iraqi police
checkpoint helped ensure other coalition forces knew what
they faced on the battlefield.
Towards the end of
her tour, she found herself having to pick up her weapon
more often. Instead of fear, she focused on getting home to
her daughter Chloe.
She left Iraq in January 2007,
having participated in 40 combat and humanitarian missions.
She shot more than 30 hours of footage used to counter
propaganda from enemy forces and inform the local population
and media about coalition actions as well as aiding future
On Sept. 27, 2007, her friends,
family and co-workers gathered to watch Col. Steve Tanous,
the 30th Space Wing Commander at the time, present her with
a Bronze Star for heroism while deployed. There was a lot of
emotion in the room that day. McMahan was the humble woman
she had always been and her friends, family and co-workers
experienced emotions ranging from pride to pure relief that
she had made it home safe.
“Jess is the most
inspirational non-commissioned officer I have been blessed
to meet in 13 years,” said Tech. Sgt. Christina Styer, a
photographer at Langley Air Force base, Va., who was
stationed with McMahan at Vandenberg. “She has no idea how
much we think of her as a hero and hope to measure up to her
level of honor, loyalty, dedication, caring and overall
quality of character. I am honored to know her and am lucky
to have her as friend,”
Staff Sgt. Shawn Hardee, an
Air Force Basic Military Training instructor and friend of
McMahan uses her story to motivate his training flights.
“I've told every one of my flights about her because
she's an unlikely candidate for such a story. I tell her
story because it proves that no matter who you are or how
much you do or don't resemble the "warrior" because of your
Air Force Specialty Code, you can be put into extremely
dangerous situations and defeat the bad guy,” said Hardee.
After her tour at Vandenberg, McMahan was assigned
to the 1st Combat Camera Squadron here at Joint Base
Charleston. Soon after arriving, she went back to Iraq and
was amazed by the changes and the progress made since her
In January 2010, after an
earthquake devastated Haiti, McMahan was on her way with a
combat camera crisis response team to cover the U.S.
military's participation in relief efforts
a completely different experience for me. I have seen what
war does to a country but to witness the effects of a
natural disaster is to see a different kind of suffering.
You know it is no one's fault and it wasn't preventable,”
McMahan has seen the worst of the worst;
death, destruction, human suffering and war. Yet it is her
ability to focus on times of joy, beauty and triumph that
always keeps me in awe of her.
She will tell you
there was a day in July 2010 that she often goes back to in
her mind. She was riding in the back of an aircraft with the
ramp open as the plane flew over the great pyramids of
Egypt. It was a beautiful day and she was videotaping. That
sight, that moment, will be with her forever and stands out
as the highlight of her career. That was the Air Force.
Last year, McMahan participated in an annual bike ride
for wounded warriors in North Carolina. The warrior ride is
a chance for military members, past and present to come
together and raise awareness about wounded service members.
“I think most of us that do the ride enjoy it because
it's a chance for us to feel normal and be around people
that have the same injuries or experiences as we do,” said
Now, she is on the verge of starting a new
chapter in her life. She will be separating from the Air
Force after 12 years of service. She has been within inches
of losing her life multiple times in battle and she has
saved lives. She has looked evil and death in the face and
is still standing. She has served her country honorably and
courageously. Through it all she has remained an amazing
mother to Chloe and an amazing friend to so many.
asked her if she keeps all the article clippings from when
she received her Bronze Star or any of her other military
achievements and mementos. She answered in her very humble
“Yeah, I have all that stuff in box. I'm keeping
it for Chloe. She may want to have it one day.”
think the late actor Christopher Reeves sums up what makes
Staff Sgt. Jessica McMahan a hero:
"When the first
Superman movie came out, I was frequently asked ‘What is a
hero?' My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a
courageous action without considering the consequences. Now
my definition is completely different. I think a hero is an
ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and
endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
By USAF Staff Sgt. Nicole Mickle
Joint Base Charleston Public
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