The Swamp Witch's War

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Air Force Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward / Air Force photo

We introduced you to Maj. Gen. Margaret “Maggie” Woodward two weeks ago as she became the first woman in U.S. history to command a U.S. military operation — the no-fly zone over Libya. A 1983 graduate of Arizona State University, Woodward, 51, has commanded and flown in Afghanistan and Iraq, and spent close to 4,000 hours flying, largely in cargo, training and refueling aircraft. From 2007 to 2009 she was the first woman to command the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, home of Air Force One, just outside Washington, D.C. That’s where she escorted President George W. Bush to his plane for his flight home to Texas on President Obama’s inauguration day, following Bush’s eight years in the White House.

We talked to the commander Monday from her headquarters at Germany’s Ramstein Air Force Base for an article in the upcoming print edition of TIME. But here’s an early peek of some of what she has to say:

What was your mission over Libya?

Our mandate included protecting the civilian population in Libya, so we did much more than just the no-fly zone. I remember being worried as we watched the Libyan regime forces bear down on Benghazi, and I remember all of us being terrified that we wouldn’t be able to turn them back in time, and that they would overrun the city, and we just couldn’t even imagine the massacre that would ensue. And just that wonderful feeling as we were able to turn them back around and head them back to the west and protect all those folks in Benghazi. The fact that we were able to protect those folks in Benghazi means an awful lot to each and every one of us. We were sitting in the air operations center and we watched our F-15Es take out those tanks, and we stopped seeing folks going north.

How did the no-fly zone go?

We haven’t shot down a single airplane because we haven’t had to, because they haven’t flown because our no-fly zone was so effective

How did you feel when the F-15E went down with its two pilots parachuting to Libyan soil?

That was a very emotional night and morning for all of us, as we sat there and went through the entire combat search and recovery operation that followed. The cheers that rose up from the floor in that air operations center when we got the word that both crew members were safe were deafening.

Were you frustrated by having to hand off military command to NATO on March 31?

It was great for me to be able to hand it off to them. I was given a very clear objective, and I feel very good that we were able to accomplish those objectives.

Why did you become a pilot?

Since I was about four or five years old, all I wanted to do was to fly. My grandfather flew in World War I — he flew just about anything, starting with Jennies, and he flew [French] Spads [after the war]. I had always wanted to fly — that was set in my mind since I was very young — and I think the first time anybody said anything [about it, it was] a high school guidance counselor who said `But they don’t let women fly in the Air Force.’ And I said, `Well, they’re just going to have to change that, because I know that’s what I’m going to do.’

Where did you get your call sign?

I picked it up when I was flying tankers, and we were doing special-operations missions. I’m very proud of that — it was nose art on a tanker down at Robins Air Force Base [in Georgia] and one of the boom operators said `That looks like Captain Woodward,’ and from there on out I was the Swamp Witch.

Do you feel like an inspiration to little girls?

I hope I’m an inspiring figure to lots of little boys and girls.

What do you say to those Air Force (fighter-pilot) veterans who wonder why a tanker pilot commanded a shooting air war?

Any one of us, particularly when we get to the rank of general, is trained and equipped to handle an operation of this sort. That’s one reason they call us general officers — we’re no longer the technical experts — we have to be able to listen to the experts and make good decisions and use good judgment. I believe that’s what my bosses expect of me, and that’s what I try to deliver.

Is it strange to out-rank your husband, Dan, who retired as a one-star officer and now you have two?

The first time he came with me to greet the President and Laura Bush [at Andrews], at the time my husband out-ranked me. I was still a colonel and he was a one-star, and I told President Bush that folks were uncomfortable with Dan being there since he outranked me. We had a little chat about that, and as President Bush climbed up the steps of Air Force One he literally stopped, turned around, and came back down the steps and poked Dan in the chest and said: `You know who’s really in charge, right?’ My husband threw up his hands and said `Hey, I’ve been married for 26 years.’