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Harpeth Hall’s 2020 Distinguished Alumna Served as First Female Pilot in 105th Airlift Squadron

Julie Cox Kennon packed four shirts, a couple of jeans, and her military uniform when she deployed to Iraq in March 2003. She hoped to be there for only a few weeks. Instead, as an Air National Guard pilot, she spent six months with her squadron in the middle of the desert.

The crew lived in brown tents decorated by mardi gras beads to brighten the stark surroundings. They slept on cots, 11 people in a single space. And during sandstorms, which could last up to 36 hours, they would run outside to the bathroom wearing goggles to protect their eyes.

When not on the ground in the Middle East, Julie was in the air flying a C-130 cargo plane in and out of Baghdad. She was the first female pilot in the 105th Airlift Squadron in the Tennessee Air National Guard and among the first women to fly combat missions.

The drive and confidence to do what no other female flyers had done before came from her father and grandfather — both military pilots — and youthful ambition developed in her time as a student at Harpeth Hall.

In recognition of her role as a trailblazer, Julie, a 1983 graduate, received Harpeth Hall’s 2020 Distinguished Alumna award. This month, she visited her alma mater, sharing with the Upper School students her journey as a student, a pilot, a mother of three, and a respected medical practitioner.

“I want to encourage you to consider unconventional opportunities,” she said. “If you are intrigued by an option off the beaten path, don’t be afraid to explore it. Sometimes opportunities or failures can lead to life-changing decisions that will send you on unexpected adventures.”

An unexpected turn

Julie spent her young life around planes. Her grandfather served in World War II as a B-25 pilot. Her father flew in the Marines and later became a commercial pilot for American Airlines. Julie wanted her wings, too, but she never dreamed of flying cargo planes into Iraq and Afghanistan.

“At that age, I would never have predicted I would become a mom who wears combat boots,” said Julie, whose daughter Isabel Kennon is a 2015 graduate of Harpeth Hall. 

Julie’s time at Harpeth Hall began in seventh grade. As a freshman, she joined the track team, which had won several state championships. When the young runner earned the chance to compete with upperclassman on a winning mile-relay team, she was inspired to set new goals and improve her times. But then, life took an unexpected turn.

At the end of her freshman year, a teenage drunk driver swerved off the road and hit Julie as she biked through her neighborhood. She flew over the hood of the car and broke her leg. The driver sped away, dragging her bike along with him. Left in a full-length cast for 10 weeks, Julie could no longer run competitively. Instead, she read books and learned to knit. Back at school the next year, she took up theatre. Her ambitious nature continued to develop.

After graduating from Harpeth Hall, she attended Stanford University. Math and science were her strong subjects, and she planned to be an engineer. But, after a challenging calculus class covering the fourth dimension, she pivoted to pre-medicine. That’s when she discovered radiology — and very soon, something else.

The only female crew member

Julie was a couple of years into medical school at Vanderbilt University when she learned she could join military flight school through the Air National Guard and still have a civilian job in medicine. In 1990, women were allowed to fly KC-135 tankers but not C-130 turboprop transport aircraft, so Julie applied to the air refueling squadron in Knoxville. 

Not long after, the rule changed. Julie sped her way through medical school with a stacked schedule and began six weeks of military officer training. Flight school was just like the movies, she said. The first week, the officers in charge woke trainees up at 2 a.m. just to yell and have them stand attention in the hallway.

After months of flight school, where Julie learned to use a voice of authority on the flight comms system instead of being “that loud girl on the radio,” she became a military officer registered to fly the C-130 Hercules — a large cargo plan that also flew low-level combat missions.

The plane was big enough to carry one fire truck, two humvees, wounded soldiers, and palettes of supplies. Directed by two pilots, the crew also had a navigator to manage flight schedules, a flight engineer to keep an eye on the engines, and a lug master to organize cargo.

Julie was the only female crew member.

 

She recalls a relief supply mission in Bosnia in 1992, where they left the plane’s engines running to get out as soon as possible, and piloting training missions Navy seals, who parachuted out of the back of the aircraft. She remembers cooking steaks in an electric frying pan in the desert and standing in line for long periods to call home and say hello to her three young children, who were 6, 4, and 2 years old during her most extended deployment.

 

There were moments when being in the military and being a mom were rocky, but, she said, “I’m still so grateful it was my job to fly all over the United States and the world.”

'Don't be afraid to be different'

As she spoke to Harpeth Hall’s students, she also acknowledged that in tough times in life — whether it is as a student, a friend, a daughter — others can help.

“When you are struggling, therapy can teach you good coping strategies and help you work through the tough times,” Julie said.

Now retired from the service, Julie hasn’t stopped coming to the aid of others. She works as a radiologist, specializing in women’s imaging. She also hasn’t lost that sense of wonder and ambition. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in February with two other Harpeth Hall alumnae.

“Joining the Guard made me feel like I could do anything,” Julie said. “If you have the drive to do something, don’t let being the first woman or the only woman be an obstacle.

“Don’t be afraid to be different — and maybe you will be the one weaning combat boots.”