On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, Maj. Marie Rossi-Cayton commanded a company of Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters deployed to Saudi Arabia. No American woman had ever flown, let alone led, helicopters into war before, but Rossi-Cayton’s Chinooks had orders to fly soldiers and supplies with the 101st Airborne Division into Iraq when the U.S. invasion began.

But as she prepared her crews — which included lower-ranking women pilots and crew chiefs —  for the invasion, Rossi-Cayton was told she would be pulled away from her unit.

Rossi-Cayton’s husband, John Andrew Cayton Sr. was also deployed in the region, flying his own missions as a pilot for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Army, he said, tried to pull Rossi-Cayton from her position because she was a woman. 

“She pretty much told them on no uncertain terms, ‘You expect me to go back to the States and leave my other two female pilots and my female crew chiefs over here? We got a unit ready to go into combat and you’re going, at the last minute, to pull the commander?’ She said, ‘No, that ain’t gonna happen,’” Cayton said. “And it didn’t.”

Though laws governing the military at the time officially forbade women from serving in direct combat roles, Rossi-Cayton flew and led her Chinooks in and out of combat constantly during the conflict. 

A day after an official ceasefire ended the war, Rossi-Cayton’s Chinook crashed into a microwave tower in northern Saudi Arabia in low-light conditions, killing Rossi-Cayton and three other soldiers.

One of the first pilots

John Cayton Sr. remembers Rossi-Cayton as a determined, strong-headed woman with a soft side when it came to cats. 

“For 5’4, she was pretty mean,” Cayton said with a laugh.

She sang all the time and knew every single word to every Beatles song. She was from a close-knit Italian-American family from Oradell, New Jersey that spent every Christmas together making ravioli. 

Rossi-Cayton went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where she was an ROTC cadet, joining the Army in the 1980s, when it was unheard of to see women in combat. World War II-era exclusion laws kept women out of “direct combat” jobs like the infantry, and the Army had accepted its first woman for helicopter pilot training only 10 years before Rossi-Cayton joined 

Rossi-Cayton and Cayton were both pilots in a Chinook company at Camp Humphrey in Korea when they met in 1985. Rossi-Cayton was a captain and the executive officer for Cayton who was a Chief Warrant Officer 3. Cayton said he, along with the other male soldiers, questioned her abilities.

“Women were just starting to come into aviation branches at that time and I was like all the other guys when we heard we were getting our first female, which was her, being a part of the boys club, I was just as bad as the rest of them talking trash about having a woman in the unit,” Cayton said. “But when she showed up and showed us what she was made of, it changed my mind pretty quick.”

While it wasn’t Rossi-Cayton’s goal to make a career out of the Army, Cayton said, once she found success, she wanted to prove herself. She was promoted to be a company commander in the 159th Aviation Battalion, 24th Infantry Division.

“It turned into the point where she felt if she didn’t retire, at a minimum, a full colonel, her career would have been a failure,” Cayton said. “She had every intention of wearing stars.”

A couple, at war

From Korea, the two worked with the Army to get orders to the same military base stateside.

Rossi-Cayton and Cayton’s commanding officer protected their relationship from higher-ups in the Army who wanted him to “take some kind of action against us,” Cayton said. He ignored it but eventually forbade the couple from flying together. They flew once together, however, which Cayton joked was his chance to finally outrank Rossi-Cayton since he was the pilot in command.

“We flew one mission, but that was after we were pretty much a solid thing. And then it turned into kind of a scenario of a wife and a husband driving somewhere,” he laughed.

After Korea, Cayton had intended to fly Chinooks for the secretive 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, but to keep near Cayton, he switched to Black Hawk helicopters, volunteering for the 160th’s first Black Hawk unit. The two moved to then-Fort Rucker, now Fort Novosel, Alabama, Rossi-Cayton for an advanced course and Cayton to qualify on the then-relatively new Black Hawk helicopter. They were together for three years before getting married in Georgia in 1990. 

“We got married in one of the squares in Savannah in fresh blues,” he said. “All of my guys in the unit came out and she wore civilian clothes and came to the square in a horse and carriage.” 

Their marriage, however, soon took a backseat to the Iraq army’s invasion of Kuwait, prompting an immediate build-up of U.S. forces to expel it. They were married just four months when Cayton deployed with his unit “to go over and help draw the line in the sand, so to speak, for President Bush at that time,” he said. “All the other units back in the states were on alert and getting ready to deploy.”

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Rossi-Cayton, meanwhile, was the commander of an air traffic control company at Hunter Army Airfield but was itching to fly. When leaders there looked for someone to lead a Chinook unit, they promoted Rossi-Cayton to major in order to take the job “because she was that impressive,” Cayton said. 

“Like all the women that day and time, she had to perform twice as hard as anybody else did,” Cayton said. “That’s how she ended up going to the Gulf War as a commander, which was in a combat unit.”

Rossi-Cayton had mixed feelings about her new role, Cayton said. She was worried about rumors and inferences by other men who assumed she was promoted for having intimate relationships with leadership.  

“She proved that she was more than capable of every job she got and she just outperformed her peers,” he said.

Rossi-Cayton and her Chinooks soon arrived in Saudi Arabia, still far from Cayton’s special operations unit. 

“I think the closest we ever got to each other over there was probably about 100 miles,” he said. Cayton’s position had more flexibility so he did his best to visit his wife at her forward operating base. 

They did meet up, briefly, a handful of times, including Christmas Eve. A friend who was also married to a fellow soldier — she was intelligence, her husband counterintelligence — arranged for Rossi-Cayton and Cayton to stay in a house on a compound that had been home to civilians working for Raytheon but who had all now left the country. 

“We got to spend one night, Christmas Eve, together in civilian clothes in a normal house,” Cayton said.

After the holidays, more Army units moved forward to prepare for the ground war.

“They were just basically hunkered down in the sand, waiting for the word to go, which was pretty tough on everybody out there,” Cayton said.

The war was shockingly quick, with a mid-January bombing campaign leading to a short invasion that ended on the last day of February. Rossi and her unit flew constant missions, ferrying troops and supplies forward and back.

Though she had to fight off the Army’s attempt to remove her before the war, her presence was historic — among the first women to fly in combat and the first woman to command a unit. Still, she took an all-business view of her role in a widely-seen CNN interview in the days before the ground war, saying “What I’m doing is no greater or less than the man who is flying next to me or in back of me.”

March 1, 1991

The day after the ceasefire Rossi-Cayton was leading five Chinooks back from a mission to transport prisoners of war as the light faded. 

“They were supposed to be back in plenty of time before dark,” Cayton said. “They should’ve been on [night vision] goggles but they weren’t.”

As darkness descended, the Chinook slammed into a remote microwave tower. Rossi-Cayton was killed, along with pilot CWO Robert Hughes, 35, flight engineer Staff Sgt. Mike Garrett and crew chief Spc. William Brace, 24.

One soldier survived the crash. Brian Miller was an infantryman who had volunteered to go to the Gulf with no flying experience.

“I was going over there to be a filler,” Miller said. “If a unit got into heavy combat and they had several KIAs, they would pull me out and pluck me in there.”

Once he was in Saudi Arabia, Miller volunteered again to be a door gunner. He was assigned to Rossi-Cayton’s Chinook. On March 1, he told Task & Purpose, they had been flying sorties into Iraq when they got orders later in the evening to transport prisoners of war from Iraq into Saudi Arabia. They had just delivered the POWs and were flying home to base when the helicopter struck the tower. Miller still asks himself how he survived when the four other crew members didn’t.

“I have thought about this 10 million times. How? How? Because everyone was just mutilated and me coming out with just some broken bones and stuff like that,” Miller said.

‘I broke down’

At a separate base, Cayton was called into a hangar. He thought he was about to get “a good chewing” for something that happened the day before. He saw Rossi-Cayton’s brigade commander, battalion commander, and Billy, his best man at their wedding, who was also Rossi’s executive officer.

“Andy, I’m sorry, but that Chinook you heard about that crashed last night — that was Marie,” Rossi’s battalion commander said.

“It was a shotgun to the face,” Cayton said. He had not even heard about a Chinook crash. “Then I just broke down.”

The crash had occurred in Saudi Arabia, after the official ceasefire. The mission was transporting POWs, a job the Army considers outside of combat.

The crew would not be awarded Purple Hearts.

“I’ve been working every day since that day to get them their Purple Heart and the Army still will not consider them,” Cayton said. “They said, ‘Unless it was a direct result of enemy fire, you’re not gonna get it.’”

“I can’t remember how many Iraqis we had on it, but I know they had the troop seats on both sides and had them sitting in the middle. There was a ton of them in there. How could that not be a combat mission?” Miller said. “That makes military sense to me but I guess higher authorities think otherwise.” 

Rossi-Cayton was buried March 11, 1991 with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1992, Rossi-Cayton was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. 

Rossi-Cayton’s story is also part of a documentary that’s shown at Arlington’s Military Women’s Memorial at the cemetery.

The attention Rossi-Cayton’s legacy receives at Arlington, Cayton said, has come with an element of sadness.

“I can’t tell you how many people have written me, emailed me wanting to know, if I was aware that on her plaque there for her awards, that it’s missing the purple heart,” Cayton said.

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