t was about two-thirds of the way through their combat deployment to Afghanistan, and the soldiers were getting cranky. Who could blame them? They’d been away from home for months, risking their lives flying missions into Taliban territory, idling in a constant state of alert, adrenaline rising and falling like the country’s rugged mountains. They just wanted to be done – to go back to their families and friends.
But it wasn’t over yet. They had to remain sharp. One careless move, a split-second lapse and the Afghan soldiers they were supporting could be ambushed. It was especially important for the Apache pilots to stay dialed in. Afghanistan’s extreme climate and treacherous terrain posed a threat to the aviators every bit as menacing as the Taliban.
During this fragile stage of the deployment, the higher-ups debated whether 1st Lt. Natalie Byrom ’13 should take command of Alpha Company, 1-151st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion. Based at McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Columbia, S.C., the aviation unit had been deployed to Helmand Province since October 2017. It was May 2018, about two months left in the deployment, and nerves were frayed, tempers stoked.
There were arguments against promoting Byrom: She was an unseasoned junior officer and part-time soldier on her first deployment. Not to mention it was unusual to install a new company commander so late in a combat deployment.
Many in her unit, including her battalion commander, believed she was ready to take command. They knew she was squared away, highly intelligent, a fierce competitor. She’d proven herself in battle a few months earlier and earned the Army’s Combat Action Badge for actively engaging enemy forces. She’d served admirably as a hard-charging platoon leader, and her soldiers respected her firm yet empathetic leadership style.
Overseeing a platoon of 13 soldiers was one thing, but taking over an entire company of nearly 50 soldiers, including pilots with far more experience than her, was another, especially in a war zone. She’d be commanding a unit consisting mostly of men, some with service records dating back to when she was still in diapers.
Because Byrom’s National Guard unit was supporting the Marines in Afghanistan, the final decision to promote her rested with active-duty commanders who did not know her well. They judged her only by what they could see on paper and right in front of them. If they signed off on her taking command and – God forbid– something went wrong on her watch, it would be their hides, too.
Would she be up to the task? Would the soldiers accept her? Could she rally the weary unit to finish strong? She was not only aware of these questions and the doubts they implied, but she needed them. Misgivings like these drive her, always have.
On May 28, 2018, in a remote hangar in the Afghanistan desert, the company’s soldiers gathered for a change of command ceremony. Called to attention, the soldiers looked on as Byrom assumed position at the front of the formation, the spot reserved for the company commander.
Outwardly she showed only concentration and crisp movements, but her mind flashed back on a winding path strewn with obstacles, naysayers and self-doubt and how the child of mixed race, divorce and meager means overcame them.
She thought about her parents and how much she wanted to achieve this for them: Her father, a former Army aviator, hadn’t lived to see this day, but he had always been her biggest champion, and her Vietnamese mother, a tough-love disciplinarian who never let Byrom slide on anything.
She thought about her alma mater back in Charleston, which is not West Point or even The Citadel, but which, as she has proven, breeds leaders and warriors just the same.
She thought back on all of this, and for a brief moment, before setting her sights on the difficult job ahead, she was proud.
“I guess I’ve always been motivated to show that your circumstances early in life do not dictate where you’ll be later in life,” she says. “I just want to prove that I can succeed regardless.”
With the passing of a blue guidon bearing the unit’s insignia, Byrom officially assumed responsibility for the soldiers of Alpha Company, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft and equipment. She also made history, becoming the first woman in her battalion to command a line company.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joel Gooch, who served alongside Byrom in Afghanistan, says the significance of her taking command during a combat deployment can’t be overstated.
“Imagine being 26 or 27, a female in a unit full of people who have been doing this job for decades,” says Gooch, “and all of a sudden, she’s the company commander. For anybody, regardless of being a female or a male, being that young and being in charge overnight is a big task.”
Even if she’d wanted to be nervous, Byrom couldn’t spare the mental bandwidth. She needed all of her focus on completing the mission and bringing her soldiers home safely.
Alpha Company is known as Nightmare Company, owing to the fact that a formation of Apaches, loaded to the gills with deadly weaponry, is the enemy’s worst nightmare.
The Taliban had their own name for the Apaches. To warn of an impending attack, the enemy could be overheard on the radio shouting, “Tor! Tor!” The word translates to “black.” It implies death, as in death is coming from above.
At $33 million each, the AH-64D Apache helicopter is a flying technological marvel strapped with laser- and GPS-guided anti-tank missiles, rockets and a machine gun synced to the precise movements of a pilot’s head. While used primarily as attack helicopters, Apaches also conduct reconnaissance and security.
The Apache has two cockpit seats – one in back for the pilot and one in front for the co-pilot, or gunner, who operates the targeting equipment and munitions. Byrom prefers the role of gunner, the one with her finger on the trigger. In Afghanistan, she flew more than 300 combat hours.
One of the most unique features of the Apache is its helmet-mounted display. A monocle positioned over the pilot’s right eye projects a visual stream of data, leaving the pilot’s other eye free to scan everything else. It’s every bit as disorienting and headache-inducing as it sounds, says Byrom, whose radio call sign is Nightmare Six.
At the same time, the pilot’s feet and hands are in constant motion, like a drummer’s, engaged in a variety of tasks to keep the helicopter in the air, to maneuver around weather and terrain and to keep track of friendly troops and potential targets.
In the cockpit, she is all business. If you’re on the wrong side of her in war, she’ll line you up in a gun sight, mutter some radio traffic, flick some levers and unleash hell.
You won’t even know she’s up there, hovering high above the clouds under spinning blades, in darkness and daylight, your body a slow-moving blob on her screen. If you’re on foot, her 30-millimeter cannon will cut you down like a machete slicing tall grass. If you’re fleeing in a convoy of trucks, she might select an armor-piercing missile to stop you. Either way, you’re dust.
And then, she’s back on the ground, back to her kinder self, smiling like a switch has been flipped.
Sipping a latte at her favorite café in downtown Columbia, Byrom looks the part of a medical sales rep. Open, affable and engaging, she’s great with the doctors, techs and hospital administrators she interacts with in her civilian job as a territory manager for Boston Scientific.
Before she chose a path that led to the military, Byrom had planned to pursue a career in medicine, so being a part of a company that makes lifesaving devices and working closely with medical professionals every day has, in many ways, been
as rewarding as serving her country.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, the medical device company, where she’s worked since 2016, surprised her with an award honoring her military service. Walking on stage to accept her award, she was a bit stunned. And so were many of her co-workers, who had no idea Byrom was in the military, let alone that she was a combat-tested pilot.
“We have a lot of younger women in the company,” says Byrom. “And after my award, a lot of women approached me, and a couple of them actually came up to me crying because they were blown away that a woman was in a masculine role.”
Such reactions got her thinking more about her obligations to other women in the military and in her civilian job, especially younger ones.
“It’s not actually something I thought about until recently,” she says. “Most of the time I just did what I did because I wanted to, but in recent times I’ve realized how important it is for women to have a mentor, or at least a role model to look up to. And that’s kind of motivated me.”
Byrom has been helping to start a mentorship program for women at Boston Scientific. That the company already has senior female leaders who can serve as mentors to younger employees says a lot about the progress that’s been made in diversifying the civilian workforce. But female role models are still lacking in the military, and she wants to do something to change that.
“I’d like to be one that brings out other women who are afraid, because I’ve been afraid, and I haven’t had many role models to look to,” she says. “I want to empower women to keep trying. And one day the barriers will be broken. Until then, I want to be the one who breaks the barrier.”
Byrom’s father (pictured opposite page) saw how the military’s male-dominated culture placed barriers in front of women, which is why he cautioned his daughter against joining the service.
Fayetteville, N.C., is one of America’s quintessential military cities. Home to Fort Bragg and vaunted units such as Special Forces and the 82nd Airborne Division, the sprawling land of Southern pines and red clay earth is the Army’s largest post – a linchpin of U.S. military might.
Home to more than a quarter of a million active-duty soldiers, civilian employees, contractors, military dependents and veterans, everything about Fayetteville screams military and patriotism.
While the city has worked hard in recent decades to combat the seedier parts of its history, one holdover remains from when rowdy soldiers caroused and boozed along downtown’s infamous Hay Street: the city’s nickname – “Fayettenam.”
If you ask Byrom whether she finds the nickname of her hometown offensive, she’ll say no. How could it be?
Being half-Vietnamese, Byrom thinks the moniker is more than a term of endearment; it’s a literal mashup of her family’s heritage. Her father, William Byrom, was a military officer at Fort Bragg. He flew Cobra helicopters for 20 years and rose to the rank of major. He graduated from flight school during the Vietnam War, but another two decades would pass before he got sent to combat. He was preparing for missions in the Gulf War in November 1990 when his wife, Hoa Parcell, gave birth to their only child, Natalie.
Byrom’s mother was born and raised in Vietnam in a village outside of Saigon. While working in a cafeteria there during the war, she met and married an American soldier (not Byrom’s father), and they returned to the States.
Byrom’s mother came from extremely humble living conditions and hardly knew any English when she arrived in an America still divided over the war. The family of the GI she married did not want a Vietnamese daughter-in-law, and that soon led to a divorce.
Her mother didn’t talk about what she experienced in Vietnam during the war, but the lasting effects are still evident today. “She was there as bombs were going off near her village,” says Byrom. “To this day, she can’t listen to fireworks because they terrify her.”
Similarly, Byrom’s father shared little about his time in the military, other than to try and steer his daughter away from pursuing it as a career. “I think maybe some of the things he saw affected him, so he never talked about his military career,” says Byrom. “He did not want me to join the military because women weren’t treated well when he was in.”
While both of her parents were reserved about their past experiences, Byrom says her parents differed in one significant way. Her mom, wanting more opportunities for her daughter than she had had, pushed her hard to excel. If Byrom scored 100 percent on a school paper, her mom would demand to know why she hadn’t earned extra credit. Her father, on the other hand, was the gentle one. Coming home in his fatigues and beret, he doted on his little girl, scooping her up in his big arms and smothering her with kisses.
The starkly different parenting styles helped shape Byrom’s personality. She’s a deeply caring people-pleaser, yet she’s fiercely competitive and driven to succeed.
“My mother’s the tough tiger mom; my father was like the cheerleader,” she says. “I want to succeed because I want to give a good name to both my cultures.”
Though Byrom enjoyed close relationships with her parents, who divorced when she was a toddler, their breakup sent Byrom’s mother on a seemingly endless quest for a new place to call home. The search took them to California, Florida, Hawaii, Texas and Connecticut, along with Germany and France, but every new place only stirred more restlessness, and soon they were packing up and moving again. They had kept their home in Fayetteville, so it often served as a base between moves. Almost every year also included a trip to Vietnam to visit her grandmother.
Byrom talks openly about how challenging the constant moves were on her emotionally. “When you’re younger, moving is sad because you don’t know if you’ll see your friends again,” she says. “As you get older, and you understand that you may never see that person again, it’s a bit more devastating.”
One of Byrom’s clearest memories from childhood occurred when she was 8. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was taking part in an experimental medication study. Her mother took the prescribed dosages, and with the same tenacity and grit she would pass on to her daughter, she battled the disease. One day after she’d been in the medical study for a while, she answered the phone and began sobbing hysterically. It was the hospital calling to tell her that the study medication she had been taking was a placebo.
“And thank God it was because everybody in the experimental medicine group had died,” recalls Byrom. “I can actually remember that was the moment I decided I wanted to go into medicine. I didn’t necessarily want to be a doctor, but I wanted to study medicine and I wanted to cure cancer.”
In Byrom’s teenage years, the constant moves began to take a toll: “Middle school was when I’d say I started to notice how hard
the move was on me. That’s when your friendships mean a little bit more.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but Byrom was honing her ability to walk into rooms full of strangers and start making connections. Naturally athletic, she used sports to make new friends. Her Type A competitiveness and a killer baseball swing enabled her to hold her own around boys.
Being the new girl, however, also opened her up to ridicule and discrimination, especially when the other kids learned she was half-Vietnamese. They thought it was funny to call her racist names. The parents of one boy she liked wouldn’t allow their son to date her because she wasn’t white.
After years of moving to one new town after another, Byrom and her mother returned to Fayetteville for good, just in time for her to start high school. Though she was back in the land of soldiers and camouflage, Byrom still had no interest in a military career. At the time, she was infatuated with theater.
During her first week of high school, Byrom was walking down a hallway at lunchtime when she saw a boy she knew. His clothes caught her eye. “I asked him what his uniform was for, and he said, ‘For Junior ROTC.’ And then he made a backhanded comment and said, ‘You could never do it, though.’”
That was all it took.
“I turned around and walked straight into my guidance counselor’s office, and I told her to put me in Junior ROTC, and I dropped theater,” she says. “I just wanted to prove I could do it.”
She immediately wondered if she’d made a mistake, but she seamlessly adjusted to the regimented lifestyle as if all the military influence she’d accumulated up to that point had suddenly awakened within her. She thrived on setting tangible goals – each successive promotion in rank bringing more responsibility, more pressure and feeding her insatiable need to prove herself.
Over the next four years, she emerged as a top ROTC student and, by her senior year, had earned the highest rank of corps commander. It’s sort of a given that the corps commander apply for a college ROTC scholarship, but Byrom was reluctant because she knew it meant a path to a military career.
Around this time, still clinging to her desire to study medicine, she began narrowing her college wish list. She’d already visited the College of Charleston, and, as it does so often with first-time visitors, the beauty and history of the campus enchanted her. But paying out-of-state tuition would be impossible for her, especially if she wanted to study medicine afterward.
Then, an ROTC adviser told her the military sends its medical personnel to nursing and medical school in exchange for a specified commitment of service. Suddenly, the ROTC scholarship and a stint in the military began to make a lot more sense.
Byrom committed to the College and became its first four-year ROTC scholarship recipient.
When Byrom arrived on campus in fall 2009, the College wasn’t exactly known as a soldier-making factory. That distinction has long been reserved for its crosstown rival, The Citadel, where Byrom spent huge chunks of her college years fulfilling ROTC obligations, such as physical training and military coursework.
It was virtually impossible for her to blend in at the military college. She wore a different uniform than the cadets, and she got to return to the relative comfort of the CofC campus every day after training. She sensed that many cadets resented her.
Even the female cadets seemed skeptical of her, which might have had something to do with the fact that Byrom was the only woman allowed to keep her hair long. There was no hiding. Just like when she was a child navigating the hallways and cliques of unfamiliar schools, she was once again the oddball.
“I certainly did get scrutiny because I didn’t have to go through cadet life and that was hard for some of them to accept,” she says. “But then I also had some people who admired me because I got to be in the ROTC program without being a cadet.”
She had initially started as a biology major to pursue a medical degree, but, with her plate full, Byrom struggled academically. She’d always been an A student, and not performing well was a blow to her ego. She reluctantly switched to psychology.
Catherine Stillwaggon McCartney ’13 first met Byrom on an outing to Kiawah Island the summer before their freshman year. They immediately bonded and have been best friends ever since.
McCartney, who describes herself as adventurous and a bit of a risk-taker, says Byrom was somewhat shy and reserved in college.
“I’m the crazy one, and she definitely brings me down to earth,” says McCartney. “She’s been a very good, level-headed friend.”
When Byrom studied for a semester in Hawaii during her junior year, McCartney flew out and talked Byrom into going skydiving. Jumping out of an airplane foreshadowed Byrom’s growing confidence. Within a couple of years, she would be in flight school learning how to eject from a helicopter.
Between her junior and senior years at CofC, Byrom had the opportunity to shadow an Army officer working in her field of interest. She figured medical service made the most sense, since it would help her pursue nursing, but the military had other plans. Somewhere in the decision-making tree, someone knew that Byrom was the daughter of a former military pilot and assigned her to shadow an officer in an aviation unit.
“I was devastated,” she says. “Aviation was what my father did. People around me could not stand to listen to me complain about it, because that is one of the hardest spots to get in the Army.”
She entered the shadowing program with a chip on her shoulder, convinced she would hate aviation. Then she climbed into a Kiowa helicopter and tried the flight controls. After that, she rode in a Blackhawk and then a CH47 Chinook. She got to meet the pilots and learn what their lives were like.
The experience opened up something inside her – a deep-seated love for aviation passed down from her father. The pilots seemed different than the soldiers she’d been around in Fayetteville.
They were professional, focused and extraordinarily confident. The complexity of the job seemed to attract a certain personality type – people who crave challenges. People like her.
Byrom wanted to fly. There was just one problem. The deadline for active duty soldiers to apply to flight school had already passed. Her only option was to apply for flight school as a member of the National Guard, which she promptly did. Soon, she was standing before a flight board whose members would determine what type of aircraft she would be assigned. The board felt that, given her affinity for medicine, Byrom would be well-suited as a medevac pilot, ferrying wounded soldiers from battlefields to hospitals. Brazenly, she rejected the suggestion.
“If I’m going to be a pilot,” she told the board, “I want the most elite airframe that you have. I want to be an Apache pilot.”
It took some convincing, but the board relented. Her acceptance letter to flight school arrived in April 2013, a month before graduation. After crossing the Cistern, Byrom was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the S.C. Army National Guard.
In September 2013, Byrom reported to flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., the same place her father had attended during Vietnam. Over the next 19 grueling months, she progressed from having never operated any kind of aircraft to flying one of the most complex and advanced airframes ever designed.
The shocking reality of training to be a pilot hit home for Byrom when she started SERE (“survival, evasion, resistance and escape”) school. The training is mandatory for military pilots because they face a high risk of being captured by an enemy.
While Byrom can’t talk about her experience there – she signed a nondisclosure agreement – the training focuses on evading capture and simulating POW conditions. Designed to induce maximum stress, the program makes soldiers endure 21 days of physical and psychological suffering.
Byrom survived SERE school and advanced to flight training, where she started on the TH67, the kind of helicopter you see flying back and forth between hospitals. To teach her to trust her flight instruments and not rely on sight alone, instructors covered her helmet with a sticker so she couldn’t see outside the cockpit while flying. Later, she spent 36 hours drawing and assembling maps by hand before taking them up in a Kiowa helicopter and relying on them to navigate.
Still, many times she thought she would never master flying.
“It is this strange feeling of excitement and hate because you are so excited to be flying – you cannot believe this is what you get to do, you are in awe of the helicopter – and then this bit of just hating yourself because you are not good at it,” she says. “You start to wonder if you will ever understand it, and then, one day, it just clicks and you fly so well. And then the next day you can’t replicate it and you hate yourself again.”
She graduated flight school in April 2015. Her father was there to pin on her silver flight wings. “That was probably the proudest moment for my father,” she says.
The flight wings they had both earned formed a new bond between them, and he began to open up to her about his military experiences before he passed away the following year.
After flight school, Byrom, as a member of the National Guard,
had to adjust to two new jobs – military and civilian. But right away, some of the men in her unit challenged her. One instructor asked Byrom if she was aware of how much money the Army had spent teaching her to fly, implying that she’d better not screw it up. Another pilot refused to fly with her.
“There’s always a faction of people like that,” she says. “I had to put my head down and focus, but that’s how I’ve always been, so it wasn’t anything new that I had to do.”
On the civilian side, she went to work in payroll sales for ADP before leaving for a position with Boston Scientific in December 2016. Finally, she was working in health care. She specializes in endoscopic gastrointestinal devices, providing sales and educational support to medical professionals.
“I love waking up in the morning,” she says. “I get to influence patients’ lives. I get to help physicians treat patients, and I get to talk to people all day. It’s the best job in the world.”
As she was settling into her new civilian job, Byrom was well aware the military could call her away at any moment. She just wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon. Before reaching her first anniversary with Boston Scientific, she was deployed to Afghanistan in October 2017.
Byrom quickly gained admirers in both jobs. People in her military unit began suggesting that she aim for command of one of the battalion’s support companies, which are different from the operational front-line units where the pilots serve. While some might have seen it as a compliment, Byrom read it differently.
“They were counting me out and trying to seal my fate,” she says. “But the thing is, I’m a very aggressive person. I’m in sales. I’m never afraid to tell you what I want. So I pulled my battalion commander aside before we deployed, and I told him that I want to be a line company commander.”
And several months later in Afghanistan, that’s exactly how it played out.
Photos by James Quantz Jr.