Airman 1st Class Mary Howe, 4th Special Operations Squadron aerial gunner, rotates an AC-130 gunship breech operating handle, ensuring accurate assembly, at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in June. Howe is the granddaughter of retired Army Col. Charles Beckwith, the first commander of the Army's Delta Force. (Senior Airman Desiree Whitney Moye / Air Force)
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It seems like destiny when you look back on it. The granddaughter of the first commander of the special operations group colloquially known as “Delta Force” and daughter of a Delta operator who took part in the ill-fated mission featured in “Black Hawk Down” grows up to become part of the Air Force’s elite special operations forces.
She enlists on the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and reports for duty on Independence Day.
But Airman 1st Class Mary Howe didn’t always want to join the military. She wanted to be a fashion designer. That was before she read “Black Hawk Down” for world history class in 10th grade.
Howe’s grandfather, Col. Charles Beckwith, died in 1994 when she was a year old. Her father, retired Army Master Sgt. Paul Howe, didn’t talk about his time in combat.
“Once she read that book,” said her mother, Connie Beckwith Howe, “everything made sense about her dad, her grandfather, about our family. That completely changed her tune.”
One of the men who died in the infamous 1993 firefight in Somalia was family friend and Delta sniper Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart. Howe knew his widow well, and it was hard to read about his death. It was also hard to think about her dad going through something so harrowing.
“I realized how lucky I was,” Howe said. She wanted to do something that would help protect people like him and Shughart.
She recently became qualified as an aerial gunner on Air Force special operations AC-130 gunships. “I would say it was pretty difficult. But every job is going to have a level of difficulty,” she said from her duty station at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Connie Howe said her daughter was always no-nonsense. She didn’t like drama and she didn’t tolerate bad behavior. “She’s a lot like her dad,” she said.
Still, she was taken aback when her daughter said she didn’t want to go to college. They’d visited Connie Howe’s alma mater, the University of Georgia.
“I really wanted her to go [there] and join my sorority,” she said with a laugh. “Then it really hit me. She’s not that way. I’ve got to let her live her life. I saw how excited she was. Our friends said, ‘this is in her blood.’ I really embraced it. I thought it was great.”
Howe’s grandfather would think so too, her mother said. “He would think it was the coolest thing. He would have thought it was just unbelievable.”
Like her father and grandfather, Howe doesn’t talk much about her family’s military history. “My parents taught me to be humble about what they did,” she said. If it comes up, “it usually catches people by surprise.”
Howe signed up for six years in the Air Force. Her mom thinks she may make a career out of it. “She’s always said she wanted to start at the bottom and work up. She said, ‘I know if I become an officer, I’ll understand [people] better.’
“Her heart is in it. She’s not trying to make a name for herself. She’s not trying to be in Delta,” Connie Howe said. “She is just happy to be at Hurlburt doing her job. I can honestly tell you that. We are just so proud of her.”