A lot of what motivates me is that I feel really fortunate to have been born in America and to have this huge, big family who loves me to death no matter what and that if I can do the smallest little thing to pay back my country and that my family sleeps well every night and has nothing to be scared of… If I can just play a small role in that, I want to do it.
Nearly every evening she walks through the front door of our apartment in her work boots and Navy flight jumpsuit with her hair pulled back in a bun. After an hour-long drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from Pt. Mugu, she calmly sets down her backpack and cooler bag, containing leftovers of the pre-made meals packed for her flight.
Having a schedule that’s as unpredictable as sunshine during June Gloom, and that sometimes includes 12 hour days, she has little time to grocery shop but prepares the best she can, as if her diet were a flight plan.
“How was your day?!” she always asks first, and you know she really wants to know.
Because that’s Megan.
She’s the same girl who asked me the question 12 years ago over AOL Instant Messenger under the name fighterpltmeg. The girl who I’ve innately trusted since I was 15, driving us around Illinois backroads in her Ford stick shift. She’s the girl who forced me to cut in the high school lunch line and who now pulls me to the front of the crowd in Vegas. She’s the girl I sent Victoria’s Secret care packages to at the Naval Academy and the one who I watched receive her pilot wings.
She’s also the girl with whom I made a special pact with when we graduated from our small town: Someday we would live together in Southern California.
“But really, why did you move here?” a member of my Crossfit gym asked as I munched on turkey meatballs at a Memorial Day BBQ in Santa Monica this afternoon. He wasn’t fully buying the fact that I just needed a change in scenery so I told him one of the main reasons: The pact.
Like a proud parent, I told him about Megan in a way that I could only get away with in her absence. Never one to brag, she probably wouldn’t have mentioned the military or her occupation or rank. And if someone mentioned Memorial Day she would have simply shared her gratitude towards those who have served.
The same questions followed that I have attempted to answer countless times despite being unsure of the exact answers myself. Why did she choose the military? What made her want to be a pilot? Is she ever scared?
In the spirt of Memorial Day, I sat down with Megan over Trader Joe’s wine in our kitchen to find out the answers, including what motivates her to do what she does, from Monday morning flights near the Pacific Coast to leading missions over Africa.
Doing Something Bigger Than Yourself
While I know her as my best friend, many others know her as Lieutenant Megan Stateler. After saying our goodbyes at the end of high school, she headed to the Naval Academy where she received a Bachelor of Science in General Engineering before starting flight school and later traveling overseas for two deployments. Her day now starts by hitting snooze on her alarm clock 9-12 times at 5:30 a.m. but could go anywhere from there, including flying the P-3 Orion and a C-130 Hercules.
“I don’t know if I can make my hair appointment or do spin class until the flight schedule comes out the previous day at 4 pm. It could mean sitting in the office doing my ground job or it could mean flying the next night at midnight. The biggest question I ask myself every day is ‘Will I have time to watch my Hulu shows?’” she says with a laugh.
Why did you want to be a pilot?
My parents took me to an air show when I was in the 5th grade and over the loudspeaker you could hear the pilot talking while they were doing acrobatics in the air. And it was a female pilot. I asked my dad, “Girls can be pilots?!” He said, “Yes hunny, girls can be pilots.” And that’s been my answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up ever since.
What made you want to join the military?
It started with me wanting to be a pilot, first and foremost, and I wanted to do something challenging. To me, that meant going to a military academy.
While she’s one of the most disciplined people I know, she was also one of the last I imagined taking orders. When she wasn’t working to earn her own money, she was scheming how we could get into parties in neighboring towns.
What was the most challenging part of the Naval Academy?
When I got to the Naval Academy, I started from the bottom of the barrel which was a blow to my ego. I like to do what I want to do and had to learn how to deal with authority.
I realized, “Okay, I’m not that great, I have to listen to someone else.” I went from being an independent person in high school to someone telling me when to eat, when to get up, when to fold my laundry. But I like to have fun and break rules and be a little spontaneous, and I felt like that was kind of taken away from me.
At the beginning of senior year at the Naval Academy, the selection process began as she sat in a room waiting to be told what her role in the military would be. Originally she wanted to be a Marine pilot, but the Marines were pretty sure she wanted to be a pilot more than a Marine. Which was true.
“When I thought of the Marines, I thought, ‘This is tougher. It’s going to challenge me more.’ I always feel like I need to take the hardest path. And I don’t know why,” Megan explained.
I see this in her every day whether she is studying Structural Dynamics for her Masters or training for Ironman races. She never opts for the easy path. It’s perhaps what has driven her to face fearful situations that would terrify someone like me who can barely stand cold spray tans.
Her first deployment was to Europe for 6 months as a Patrol Plane Pilot before heading back out for a second time in Deployment #2. For 7 months she served as Mission Commander in Italy and Djibouti, Africa when she had just turned 27.
What was the scariest part?
Everything falls on you. You’re in charge of the plane and everyone on it while flying in places where not everyone’s your friend in a big plane that says U.S. Navy on it. Also, we’re flying one of the oldest planes in the Navy. I mean, think about having a 60 year old car…
What’s your favorite part of your job?
All the people I get to meet with and interact with every day and all the places the Navy has taken me.
What do you see yourself doing next?
When my time is up feels like a mystical thing, but I want to be a yoga instructor. That’s always been on my list. I want to be full-time athlete. *laughs uncontrollably* I want to have a family, travel.. Have hobbies.
What does Memorial Day mean to you?
Something else that motivates me is all of the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and the fact that it’s so easy to go about our everyday life and take a lot of the stuff in America for granted and not remember that we have all those things because people paid that sacrifice. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if someone else hadn’t gone before me which I think is important to recognize. And something that I want to play a part in preserving. Nowadays everyone has had a friend or brother or uncle in the military, and it’s something we can all relate to and something that touches home for a lot of us.
Because of Megan it certainly touches home for me in a literal sense. I am thankful to have the privilege to watch her live out her childhood dream firsthand as part of honoring our pact. Each day when she arrives home and asks me how my day is, it’s hard to say anything but great.
And she inspires me to be great. “It’s just about doing something that’s bigger than yourself,” she said as she took a final sip of wine, said goodnight and reminded me not to stay up too late.