This Mother's Day story isn't about your typical mom.
Capt. Melissa Armstrong, currently stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, has flown in 47 combat missions as a weapons system officer in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. In January of last year, she was fighting labor pains. By July, she was fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Her journey began when she signed up for the military after high school. Armstrong was looking to save lives, even then, although her path started in a different arena. Thinking she would be a doctor, Armstrong took a job as a scrub-tech in a cardiac catheterization lab, putting in pacemakers and heart stents. "My intention was to be a pre-med (student)," she said.
She applied for and got a scholarship to Florida State University, a move that would change the trajectory of her life. Her military commander there happened to be an F-16 pilot.
He noted something in Armstrong's quiet, steady resolve, and he posed the question: "Have you ever thought about flying?"
Armstrong said she had never given it a thought; it was out of the realm of what she imagined could be possible. But after the idea was planted, it began to germinate. She enrolled in the Civil Air Patrol and took some test flights in a Cessna 152. She liked flying; it was fun, natural. She began quizzing pilots and listening to their stories about fighting for their country and saving lives. It was a different way to do what she'd started out to do — save lives.
It became her passion.
"Once I wanted to do it, I was hooked," Armstrong said. "I didn't want to just fly; I wanted to be a fighter pilot."
While in college, Armstrong met her now husband, Philip Armstrong. They married in 2013. Philip served in the military as a pararescueman, and he has since become a government contractor.
After Armstrong graduated from college, she was commissioned and attended navigation school, selecting the fighter pilot track after a year of training.
As a weapons system officer — what's called a "WSO," or "wizzo" — Armstrong sits in the second, or "aft," position behind the pilot in the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet.
"If you've seen 'Top Gun,' I'm Goose," she said.
From her spot, she can't start or stop the engines, she said, but she can operate the controls. While it doesn't happen often, Armstrong said her role and position can take over if, say, a pilot experiences G-LOC (gravity-induced loss of consciousness) or spatial distortion. Usually, though, she'll take the controls when the pilot takes a break.
"We'll take over if the pilot wants to eat a sandwich or take a pee or if he would like a break from flying," said Armstrong, noting they sometimes fly in one stretch for long missions, up to six to eight hours.
"I enjoy flying," she said. "I'm constantly asking my pilot, 'Can I have the jet? Can I have the jet?' I've never landed from the back seat, but technically you can."
But what Armstrong mainly focuses on during a mission is just as critical as flying the jet. It's her job to type in coordinates for the bombs and communicate with the team on the ground.
After Armstrong graduated from her basic jet fighter training course, she went to her first duty station at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England for about three years. She completed a few temporary assignments in Alaska, Spain and Israel.
It was in Israel in late spring/early summer 2017 that Armstrong learned that she was pregnant. Armstrong had stocked up on pregnancy tests before leaving on the trip — she and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for almost a year.
"When you're trying to get pregnant, you're constantly wondering if you're pregnant or not," she said. It also made planning a challenge. "It was, 'Oh, am I going to be going on deployment in three months — or am I going to be pregnant?'"
Armstrong used her last remaining pregnancy test — and it was positive. But she wanted to make sure.
"So I go to a pharmacy in Israel, and I'm trying to communicate to this lady that I need a pregnancy test — and she's trying to sell me condoms," Armstrong said, laughing.
And, as per military protocol, after she found out she was pregnant, "I immediately had to stop flying," Armstrong said.
A pregnant woman cannot fly in a B-15 E for a number of reasons: one is the ejection seat; another is the G-force.
A Strike Eagle can hurtle through the atmosphere at 1,875 mph, compared to a commercial jet aircraft, which cruises at around 575 mph.
"We wear this thing called a G-suit," Armstrong said, which is an anti-gravity garment that inflates to keep you conscious, to keep blood from pooling in your feet and legs. "It's essentially like a giant balloon that, as you're flying, the more Gs you pull, the tighter it gets. It's around your legs and goes across your abdomen. … Good for staying conscious — but not good for a developing fetus."
When she stopped flying, Armstrong became a maintenance group executive officer for nine months, while continuing simulator flight training.
She did a lot of sim training while she was pregnant. It's kind of like playing a big video game — "but don't tell my husband that," Armstrong said, laughing. "It's really fun ... and it's a very valuable training tool."
Mommy time ... then back to work
On Jan. 23, 2018, Nova Abella Armstrong was born.
Armstrong was able to take what is now a standard three months of leave to be with her baby; the Air Force instituted a 12-week parental leave for the primary caregiver in June 2018.
"I love that I got the three months," Armstrong said. "I felt like it was definitely needed, and I enjoyed every minute of it."
But when the three months was over, Armstrong was ready to get back in her WSO seat.
"I jumped right back into it headfirst," she said. And so, after a stint of requalification training, she was able to deploy with her squadron two months after reporting back to duty.
"I actually deployed when my daughter was 5-and-a-half months old," Armstrong said. It was hard, but she was OK with it because she had strong support where it mattered most.
"I could not have done it without my husband," Armstrong said. "He completely supported it. He didn't say, 'Oh, aren't you going to stay home longer?' or anything like that. He was very like, 'Go get it, girl.'"
Armstrong said she could have forgone the three-month deployment — the Air Force has a policy that allows mothers to take a year pass on being deployed. If Armstrong had chosen that route, though, she wouldn't have been able to go for another three years, when it would again be time for her squadron to deploy.
"Where my squadron was, I wanted to be there," Armstrong said. "I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to give back. … I never deployed when I was younger, but I always wanted to. I always felt like I needed to deploy to do my part. A big part of the military is … going to do the job. It was something I wanted to do."
She said some questioned her decision.
"A lot of people look at me kind of crazy when I tell them I deployed when she (Nova) was so young," Armstrong said. "But honestly, it was easy because she was so little, and my husband took off work. … He was a stay-at-home dad during that time, so I knew she was in great hands. And she absolutely adores her dad now, and he took excellent care of her."
Philip took it as an opportunity to get close to his new little girl.
"It was a fun time to bond with my daughter," he said. "I loved every minute of it."
Armstrong's family and friends pitched in, too.
"My mom got to spend grandma time with (Nova), and my dad got to see her a lot, my girlfriends," she said. "She didn't even go to day care until she was after a year old. Happiest baby in the world. Literally."
So, when Armstrong was combat-mission ready, there was no second-guessing, no going back; she was all in.
Armstrong had been training for that moment since 2013. She admits it was a big leap.
"Yes, it was a big switch from nursing an infant to … being over there," she said. "But I think honestly, my experience, it really added to it because it really opened my eyes to how lucky I am for having been born in America."
Armstrong said she worried most about the children in the war-torn countries. Fighting ISIS was even more poignant since she had her own daughter now.
"These children are just innocent children, and they don't control where they're born — and I just was so grateful to be able to fight for them," she said. "As a mother, knowing that I have a child … she's not going to be able to remember my being gone when she was 5-and-a-half months old."
Armstrong said she is proud she was able to fight, proud to have fought for her country, and for others who couldn't.
"I hope someday she looks at me and she's proud her mother participated in this war and this cause," Armstrong said.
She logged between 200 and 300 combat hours during her three-month deployment and was on a rotation that gave her enough down time to keep her alert and calm and at her best.
"It was fly, fly, off; fly, fly, office day," she said. And she made sure she kept in close touch with her family, especially Nova.
"I FaceTimed with her almost every single day, which was great," she said. "She recognized my face on the screen. We had great Wi-Fi there."
Back home, Philip waited patiently and made the best of his one-on-one time with Nova.
"Seeing my wife in a multifaceted way only makes me love her more," he said. "I am thankful she made me a dad; it’s the best job I’ve ever had the joy to experience."
Still, Melissa Armstrong said some days were tough.
"One thing we're trained to do very well is to compartmentalize things.You have to put things in containers and basically seal them off when you're doing other things — and vice versa," she said. "Like when I went out and flew a mission, it didn't affect me differently if I FaceTimed with my daughter and vice versa. … You can't have a bad morning with your kids and let that affect how you fly. It always requires the same level of focus, and by compartmentalizing things we're able to execute, essentially. And I think everyone, moms and dads, husbands, wives, everyone — you have to do that. We're all people and we have these people interactions."
Was Armstrong ever worried she might not make it back?
"It goes through your mind — it can't not," she said. "But I seriously don't think it's any more risky than driving your car every day. We ultimately don't have that in our control. But luckily it's a different era than like what it was in the Vietnam era. Everyone in my whole squadron that went out there, every single one of us came back. The fatality rates of aviators have gotten extremely better over the years due to the way tactics are, the way wars are fought, and our training is a lot better. … So I felt pretty safe out there.
"I wouldn't say I 100% knew I was going to come home every time, but I felt very, very, very confident that I was going to."
Philip Armstrong was equally confident.
"We both have dangerous jobs," he said, "and worrying about the 'what ifs' would only distract us from the moments and the mission."
The next adventure
Today, Nova is 15 months old, and Melissa and Philip are expecting their second child in August. They are not going to find out the baby's gender beforehand as they did with Nova.
"We want it to be a surprise," she said.
After taking another three months off for family leave, Armstrong said she'll be flying again in December.
Would she ever be up for deploying again?
She pauses. "I think so, yeah. I would definitely go again."
Armstrong celebrated her first Mother's Day in England with her daughter last year.
"We were in a British pub," she said. "Nova was just learning how to stand."
Philip, who was out of the country for work, had arranged for a friend to deliver flowers and a card, marked from Nova. He wanted Armstrong to get her first Mother's Day presents "from" her daughter.
What does she hope to do to celebrate the day this year?
Armstrong pauses, thinking a moment, then smiles.
"Hopefully, I'll get to sleep in and get breakfast in bed."