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A real hero walks among us

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nicole Mickle
  • Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs
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 storyline and its bright comic book colors, courageous muscle-built leading men and happy endings we can predict.

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 videographer.

"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 job.

"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 tell."

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 assigned there.

"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, McMahan said.

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 sister.

"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 Qaeda 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 Jan. 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 combat operations.

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-Air Base. Soon after arriving, she went back to Iraq and was amazed by the changes and the progress made since her previous deployment.

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.

"Haiti was 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," she said.

McMahan has seen the worst of the worst; war and the death, destruction and the human suffering it entails. 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 McMahan.

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.

I 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 way.

"Yeah, I have all that stuff in box. I'm keeping it for Chloe. She may want to have it one day."

I 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."