WHITTIER — Troy DeVine, 23, has set herself a goal that is sky-high: She wants to fly jet fighters in the Air Force.
As DeVine sees it, this is no flight of fancy. The blue-eyed, sandy-haired Whittier resident has just graduated with athletic and military honors from the Air Force Academy, one of 100 women graduates in a class of 900. DeVine, now a second lieutenant in the Air Force, will begin 13 months of pilot training in August at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona.
There is just one problem: Federal law prohibits women from engaging in combat-related military activities; in the Air Force that means women may fly only tanker and non-tactical cargo aircraft and may not pilot combat planes.
Still, DeVine said, she will pursue her dream of flying with the Thunderbirds, an F-16 demonstration team that requires 10 years of experience piloting the jet fighters.
"I'm going (to pilot training) 100% gung-ho," DeVine said. "But I don't want to be stagnated or limited. . . . If everything works out, I'll start opening some eyes-- and then some doors."
DeVine has a record of brushing obstacles aside with determination and hard work. After she injured her knee in a parachute jump at the academy, doctors told her never to play water polo--her favorite sport--again. But DeVine, a competitive swimmer since she was 9, paid no heed. Two surgeries later, she was still playing the game. She even practiced with the men's water polo team at the academy "to learn a more aggressive style of play," DeVine said.
The result? DeVine will compete in Europe this summer as a member of the National Women's Water Polo Team.
DeVine, who graduated from St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs, said she applied to the Air Force Academy "for all the wrong reasons." It seemed to represent a challenge, something different--and tuition was free, she said.
Once at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., DeVine said, she encountered a life style "contrary to everything I had been doing. I was a Southern California swimmer, a lifeguard type. I didn't have any concept of duty. It seemed more hassle than it was worth."
Was Unsure at First
DeVine floundered at first, unsure if the military was the right place for her. But gradually, she said, she became "less self-centered" and "really saw what serving was all about."
Now, DeVine said, she is sure that the path she has chosen is the correct one. As an academy graduate who will undergo flight training, she is committed to staying in the Air Force for seven more years.
"Protecting the freedoms we all enjoy--that's exactly what I want to be doing right now," she said. "There's no better way to serve than in the military."
In her senior year at the academy, DeVine was a squadron commander, in charge of disciplinary and administrative affairs for 117 male and female cadets. She graduated in the top 10% of her class in military performance.
At her commissioning, DeVine was recommended for the Air Force Achievement Medal for humanitarian service. In an incident in Florida this year in which she and five other cadets were assaulted by hoodlums armed with metal pipes, DeVine, who was herself badly beaten, went to the aid of a fellow cadet.
DeVine dismisses suggestions that it is difficult being a woman in the military. (The Air Force Academy excluded women until 1976).
"It's a man's world," she conceded, "and there are still a lot of people who want it to be all men. But I didn't notice it that much. You get into a camaraderie with everyone."
Not that there were no difficult moments. On her first day at practice with the men's water polo team in preparation for the national women's tryouts, DeVine said, she received an icy welcome and a "few elbows and knees" in the water.
"It's kind of a macho environment," she said. "They were really skeptical. But they learned to respect what I was trying to do."
From the men, DeVine said, she learned how to play rough, how to grab opponents under water out of sight of the referee and prevent them from moving around the pool. By the time she left for the tryouts, she said, the men's team "was really pushing for me" and several members stopped by with last-minute advice.
For DeVine, her career goal of flying combat planes is a logical one. After all, she said, "Fly, Fight and Win" is the motto of the Air Force. Yet, as the law stands now, the Air Force "has no choice" but to exclude women pilots from combat aircraft, a spokesman for the academy said.
"It's frustrating to me that those doors are closed just by the fact I'm a woman," DeVine said. "I'm an athlete and I always wanted to be first team. I've always been a performer. I can't understand why suddenly that's not good enough. If they just gave me some rational, logical reason . . . "
The small steps taken by women in the military are not enough, DeVine said. "You've got to look forward (and ask yourself), 'What can you change? What can you make better?' "