As a child, Rosemary Mariner lost herself in books about aviation. She fell in love with all things airplanes and decided she wanted to make her living flying them.
By 17, the San Diego native had earned her private pilot’s license. Her flying career would entail breaking barriers—including helping to repeal the nation’s laws that excluded women from combat aviation—and many firsts, such as being the first American female military aviator to command an air squadron.
Mariner, a scholar in residence with UT’s Center for the Study of War and Society and former lecturer in the UT Department of History, noted an overarching theme in her life, one she has often conveyed to students: perseverance.
“Life can deal you a lot of curveballs,” she said. “You hang in there and you don’t quit. I think the most rewarding thing as a teacher is when people get something and hang in there and do well.”
Mariner, who taught US military history at UT from 2002 to 2016, is a nationally recognized expert on gender integration in the armed forces. As a scholar in residence at UT, Mariner draws on both her scholarship and her personal experience to serve as a resource for the Center for the Study of War and Society. She fields numerous media inquiries from national broadcasting networks and is a key part of the center’s community programs.
In 1972, Mariner became the first woman to graduate from Purdue University’s aviation program.
When she entered the armed forces in 1973, women accounted for less than 2 percent of naval aviation. The commanding officer of her first squadron was Captain Ray Lambert, a black man who mentored her in learning how to navigate the system.
“He taught me how black men in the Navy and all the services networked. He told me how it was going to be and what we would need to do as women,” she said. “He was adamant that women should never have a separate chain of command. Racial segregation in the armed forces was a major barrier African Americans had to overcome.”
Those lessons from Lambert were instrumental as Mariner and other women military pilots joined together to tackle injustices limiting women’s military opportunities.
“We started networking, as my mentor had taught us. We would get together and if we thought something was unfair—they wouldn’t let women land on a ship, for example—we would write a letter up the chain of command and put it on the record that we wanted that changed.
“That network became very important, especially when it came time to repeal laws,” she said.
In 1973, Mariner was among the first group of women chosen to train as naval pilots. She earned her wings in 1974 and became the first woman aviator to qualify in a tactical jet aircraft, the single-seat A-4E/L Skyhawk, in 1975. Mariner commanded Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 (VAQ-34), becoming the first woman to command an aviation squadron, during the 1991 Gulf War.
Mariner, a past president of the Women Military Aviators Inc., played a leadership role in Congress’s 1991 decision to repeal two aviation combat exclusion laws following the Gulf War. In 1994, women entered aviation combat units in all the services.
Mariner has seen women make huge strides but knows there are still obstacles.
“There have been remarkable changes in the military,” she said. “What I’m still concerned about are these reports of sexual assault and sexism and criminal activity that still go on.”
When Mariner and her husband—Tommy, a UT grad—retired from the Navy in 1997, they returned to his native East Tennessee to raise their family. Mariner, who has been affiliated with the Center for the Study of War and Society since 1998, said she has learned from the generations of students with whom she has interacted.
“You learn from students more than what you teach,” she said. “Every generation gets criticized for not being as good as the previous generation. All the generations of students I’ve seen come from UT are outstanding and will go out and make their mark on the world.”
She encourages student veterans at UT to connect with one another and get involved in various campus organizations.
“From a historical perspective, veterans don’t tend to get together until later years,” she said. “But I think this latest generation that has fought in the last 15 years needs to come together to support one another. The new Veterans Resource Center at UT certainly makes that possible for them to take advantage of it.”
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