Natalie Graham Mallicoat: A pilot in Afghanistan

For nearly 40 years, Appalachian State University's ROTC program has produced quality leaders for the U.S. Army. Graduates earn the bar of a second lieutenant after developing self-discipline, physical stamina and poise, as well as organizational and motivational skills. Among the program's successful graduates is Staff Officer Natalie Graham Mallicoat '05.

Piloting an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter just hundreds of feet off the ground with a two-person crew and a ground unit counting on your team for cover and intelligence is a profound responsibility.

For 2005 graduate Natalie Graham Mallicoat, a staff officer at Fort Bragg, that was her life in Kandahar, Afghanistan from April 2009 to April 2010, and it will be again in the coming year.

After completing the Aviation Captains Career Course at Fort Rucker, Ala., this fall, she is scheduled to deploy for her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, this time as a troop commander.

Mallicoat was a political science major at Appalachian. She is married to 2002 graduate James Robert Mallicoat, who was an industrial drafting and design major. He is in the 3rd Special Forces group at Fort Bragg.

In a diminutive voice belying her 27 years, Mallicoat delivers a rapid-fire account of her experience with the 1st Squadron 17th Cavalry Regiment at Regional Command South in Kandahar.

"We were very effective when it came to supporting the ground forces and engaging with the enemy," she said. "Our mission was basically close combat attack, security missions and reconnaissance."

"When a ground unit came in contact with the enemy, we functioned as a quick reaction force. We either provided air coverage for them while they were maneuvering, or we identified where the fire was coming from and engaged the enemy ourselves," she said.

Mallicoat's military career began with Appalachian's ROTC battalion, but her commitment to serve began much earlier. She and her brother Travis were raised primarily by their father, James Graham, a lifelong teacher in the North Carolina and Ohio public schools.

"He impressed upon us service to our country from a very young age," said Mallicoat. She and Travis took those teachings to heart.

Just three days after graduating from Appalachian, Mallicoat showed up for flight school at Fort Rucker—the home of army aviation. She began flying helicopters in November 2005, and has served as a commissioned officer with U.S. Army Aviation ever since.

Travis Graham is a first lieutenant and R.N. at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"A special thing about our relationship is that when there was a tragedy on the ground I could call Travis and say, 'You're going to get two guys. Here are their names and this is what happened to them. E-mail or call and let me know when they get there,'" she said.

"Other than laying down fire and trying to engage the enemy, or providing information about enemy activity, there's not much we can do from the air," she said. "You can't put your hands down and move them. You can't make them run any faster."

A lot of these soldiers would end up as her brother's patients, and Mallicoat felt some comfort knowing they were in good hands.

When asked if she plans to be a career soldier Mallicoat speaks with uncertainty.

"I don't really know. For me this is about more than duty. I feel this is what I'm supposed to be doing," she said.

"But there's a trade-off to the job. You know that even as your world becomes the deployment, the rest of the world keeps moving forward—people age and babies grow up," she said.

For the time being Mallicoat moves forward on the path she has chosen, and hopes she and her husband will continue to be stationed at Fort Bragg together after their respective assignments.

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