Written by Osayi Endolyn Tuesday, April 10 2012
Last summer at her own book signing, Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour was taken aback. A man was standing in the line, and he’d made a surprising comment. Armour describes the encounter with the vibrant energy of a he-said-she-said.
“He said, ‘Honestly, I didn’t want to come to your presentation, but I enjoyed it. Thanks.’ I was like, 'Whoa! Why didn’t you want to come?'”
“He said, ‘Honestly? Well, you know, I’m a white a guy. You’re a black chick, combat pilot. What do we have in common? Nothing.’”
Experiencing this obstacle was nothing new to Armour, but neither was the fact that she could overcome it. Armour was accustomed to using her life experiences to make a difference for people, and she noted that the man was in line buying her book.
“He said, ‘[Your speech] had a lot more substance than I thought, and I really got a lot out of it. So, thanks.’ This guy had a complete transformation of arms folded, not wanting to be there, to seeing value and wanting to take it further. Everybody has obstacles,” Armour says. “I show folks how to navigate those challenges. That’s the huge draw for people.”
Just five years ago, Armour quit her day job. For most, a day like that would be filled with self-doubt and loaded with risk. For Armour, the last day of her job as a diversity liaison officer to the Pentagon would be the launching pad to the next phase of her life.
She’d spent nine years in the United States Marine Corps. During that time she served two tours in Iraq, became the first African-American female combat pilot with the call sign “FlyGirl” and achieved the rank of captain. And those weren’t even the first barriers she broke.
But on that last day of work in her Washington, D.C. office, past achievements were just that. Armour was focused on her future. She drove to the airport after a full day and flew to Corpus Christi, Texas, where she gave her first keynote speech for an academic organization serving children. Later that month she had six other speaking engagements lined up. She hasn’t slowed down since.
Today, Armour draws large audiences as a nationally recognized author and speaker, who keynotes conferences and provides customized coaching to companies with her “Breakthrough Mentality” mindset. Depending on the engagement, she walks across stages in business attire or her signature flight suit, tailoring her message to whatever her client needs. She has been a guest on Oprah, The View, NPR and CNN for her inspiring story full of firsts, detailed in her book, “Zero to Breakthrough: The 7-Step, Battle-Tested Method for Accomplishing Goals that Matter.” No matter what a person’s goals are, personal or professional, Armour’s business runs on the premise that she can help you achieve them. She ought to know. For her, it all started with wanting to be a cop.
“I was four years old when I first decided that I wanted to be a police officer,” she says. “I never felt anything was impossible,” she says about her childhood. “My wants and desires were actually nurtured.”
But early on she felt some downsides to standing out. Born in Chicago, Ill., at the age of three Armour moved to southern California following her parents’ divorce. She calls California the “foundation of her childhood,” where she was surrounded by kids of white, Asian and Hispanic backgrounds. In the fourth grade her family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee where her grandmother lived. They lived in the historic neighborhood Orange Mound, a post-WWII beacon of black-owned homes and vibrant business community that Armour says had begun to deteriorate. Compared to the “foundation” of her childhood on the West Coast, the young Armour couldn’t understand why a community of people who looked like her was structured this way.
“Not one of the greatest neighborhoods to just walk down the block,” she says. And not the easiest place to be herself. Her new peers questioned the way she looked (long hair), the things she liked (riding horses) and how she spoke (proper grammar). What kind of black girl rode horses?
Armour was undeterred. In an environment where it was considerably uncool to become an authority figure, Armour saw the potential of achieving her long-held dream. She also started to see opportunities for being a good role model. But Armour couldn’t become a police officer until she was 21 years old. So while a student at Middle Tennessee State University, she discovered that the military could prepare her for being a cop, giving her an edge in the competitive police academy. She enlisted in the Army Reserves, then entered the Army ROTC as a cadet, making up her coursework in the summer.
One day at a career fair, Armour walked through the aviation tent. She had no interest in flying, and even flippantly joked that black people didn’t fly. Then she looked over and saw a black woman in a flight suit. “It was just mind-expanding,” she said. “I saw the tangibility of the possibility.” A seed was planted that day, but it didn’t grow for a while.
In 1996, Armour went on to join Nashville’s police department at the age of 21 — as soon as she was eligible. Ever the horse fan, she hoped to ride them as an officer, but Nashville did not have an equestrian section at the time. So she put in for the motorcycle squad. Less than two years on the force, Armour became the first black woman to ride in Nashville’s specialized unit. Two years later she moved to Tempe, Ariz., where Armour became the first black officer in their police department. Still, she never forgot about that lady in tent. “I called her ‘the chick in the flight suit.’ I could always be a cop. But I wouldn’t always have the opportunity to be a combat pilot.”
After three attempts, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Pendleton. “The two proudest days of my life were walking across the stage getting my badge — becoming a police officer, and the other would be walking across the parade deck with ‘United States Marine’ across my chest.”
Armour credits the Marine Corps’ ethos and ideology for being a big part of who she is today. She flew a SuperCobra helicopter in the 2003 Iraq invasion and did two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Literally battle-tested, she prefers to spend her time looking at what’s possible rather than what’s not. She says, “That’s where I got one of those signature phrases — ‘acknowledge the obstacles, don’t give them power.’” In a career full of barrier-breaking firsts, people are curious about how Armour accomplished so many. That’s the message she passes on to her audiences -- that whatever they want to achieve, they can do it. Right now.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘Oh I would do this, but I’ve gotta wait for that.’ Well, why do you have to wait? When people put the limiters there — they’re already saying they doubt the potential of their success to be able to create the conditions needed for them to do it.”
Her keynotes focus on creating breakthroughs — literally causing them — in whatever area of life that matters to a person. For Armour there is no magic bullet. Achieving goals is about making a commitment to living a certain kind of life. The kind where nothing gets overstepped. She calls it breakthrough mentality.
“The definition of breakthrough mentality is refusing to settle even in the smallest of moments and demanding a breakthrough life — demanding a breakthrough career, breakthrough family, relationship with your kids, whatever it is. But the key is you refuse to settle even in those small moments.”
In addition to the media appearances, book signings, keynotes, panels and conferences, Armour actually spends most of her time working with small groups, the majority of which are women. “I help them accelerate their lives and their businesses. That’s where I really get a lot of fulfillment,” she explains.
In an upcoming session, she’s taking one group of women rock climbing. “That’s the kind of stuff I love doing,” she says about working with women. “People aren’t going to go and be a combat pilot or shoot missiles over the desert or [be] a cop with a gun. But I can show them how to shoot missiles over the deserts of their own life.”
Armour looks at the whole picture when she’s working with her clients. Not just the five-year goal or 10-year goal. She wants to know what you want life to look like 40 years down the road, and then she wants to help you create it. Reflecting on this notion of long-term goal setting, she paints a picture of her own future -- one where her personal successes translate as indicators of other people’s potential greatness. The “chick in the flight suit” embodied a whole new way of looking at the world for Amour. She’s up for causing that seminal moment for as many communities as she can. “At this very moment I call myself an emerging world leader,” she says with conviction. “I want to be known as an individual who was a leader in the global community.”
Armour has proven herself multiple times over, but she continues to strive for new boundaries to break. That drive keeps her motivated and excited about life. Even after all of these firsts, she’s still on the outlook for more. “I don’t want to be average,” she laughs. “Do you?”
Read about more women with a military connection:
Paula Broadwell shares powerful leadership principles she learned from General Petraeus during the year she spent embedded with him in Afghanistan.
Find out how this patriotic former Marine's journey led her to become a nurse and award-winning member of the Navy.
Although she now is busy making a difference with her litigation law firm, Janice Brown travelled the world performing for soldiers with the USO.
Osayi Endolyn is a California native living in Atlanta, GA. She received her BA in French from UCLA and is earning an MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Atlanta INtown Paper, SCAD’s graduate writing journal Document and Quilt Stories, a podcast series inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Her art criticism essay was selected for publication in Feminist Art Workers: A History, slated for 2012 publication. Endolyn was recently awarded a writing residency from the Grinnell Area Arts Council in Iowa, where she continued work on her first book, a creative nonfiction look at the culture of the US Marine Corps.