There is always an element of danger when choosing a military career.
But for 23-year-old Capt. Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force, the risk is compounded. She comes from a country where women are considered far from equal to men and success could mean a death sentence, so to speak.
“It is like very hard to change all of the society, but that is what I wanted to do,” she said during a visit to MCAS Miramar on Monday.
But her bravery has earned her a place as one of the 2015 U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage.
At age 18, she seized the opportunity to join the Afghan Air Force after seeing a recruiting advertisement that said the military was looking for women, even for pilot training.
She decided to pursue her dreams and her father's passion; he wanted to be a military pilot.
“I think I could complete his dream, and he's so proud and he's so happy," said Rahmani about her father.
They both knew for her safety, they had to keep quiet because women do not have the same rights as men.
“We have to keep this secret; our family should not know that I'm in the military,” she told the MCAS Miramar Marines.
As Rahmani met with the Marine leadership, the captain talked about her training with U.S. military instructors in Afghanistan. She said they treated her the same as the male pilots and told her to never give up.
It took about two and a half years to complete her training. After her first solo flight in a Cessna 182, Rahmani went on to expand her skills and graduate from advanced flight training. She soon became qualified to fly the C-208 military cargo aircraft.
During one mission, she landed only to find several injured Afghan soldiers. She defied orders that women not be allowed to carry the wounded or dead. Rahmani took full responsibility for her decision to fly the wounded to the nearest hospital in order to save lives. Her commanding officer did not punish her for the bold move.
Hearing her stories, Maj. Gen. Michael Rocco, the commanding general of Third Marine Aircraft Wing, told Rahmani, “Not only do you feel the pressure of being the first, but you also feel the pressure of the responsibility that comes with being the first.”
She shared the extreme pressure she is under with female pilots from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Rahmani said she has been subjected to multiple death threats from members of the Afghan military, people in her own country, the Taliban and eventually her extended family.
Her sister she said was beaten and is forbidden from seeing her own daughter. Her bother had to hide from gunfire while walking home from class one day. Her family has to move every couple of months to stay safe.
While serving in the military is something to be proud of, for Rahmani, there is a huge price to pay. “Being a female in the military is a shame for all family,” she said.
Maj. Natalie Walker, a Marine pilot who is trained to fly the F-18, had this reaction to Rahmani’s story: “I can't imagine having to deal with the adversity that she's had to face, not only from her government, but from her own family.”
But no matter the challenge, Rahmani stays strong, she said, for the women who will follow in her footsteps and change the path for women in Afghanistan.
“I am never going to give up,” she said.
Rahmani is now on a five-day tour organized by the San Diego Diplomacy Council, following a State Department ceremony in Washington D.C., a White House tour and meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama.
In addition to the MCAS Mirmar visit, the captain will ride with the Blue Angels and a meeting with community leaders and Girl Scouts.