U.S. Air Force pilot Mary Jennings Hegar captures perfectly the two seemingly contradictory aspects of Memorial Day.

In her book, "Shoot Like A Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front," she describes seeing an American soldier in Afghanistan make the ultimate sacrifice for his country, dying despite her helicopter team's effort to fly him out of the battlefield to receive medical treatment.

"I desperately wanted this guy to live and I know the rest of my crew was having the exact same thought," she writes. "This guy deserved to return home to the family I was certain was waiting for him."

Instead, his aorta had been struck and there was nothing anyone could do to save him.

Memorial Day is set aside each year to recognize the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who die while serving their country.

At the same time, Hegar, who goes by MJ, said it is important not to wallow in the solemnity of the holiday. She argues our way of life is what these veterans were willing to die protecting.

"Most of us would agree that celebrating the holiday with barbecues and bringing families together and camaraderie is absolutely appropriate for the spirit of the holiday," she said in a phone interview with The Courier-Gazette.

Hegar will speak Saturday, May 27, at 11 a.m. at the Knox Museum's seventh annual Memorial Day weekend "Boots on the Ground" event. Her presentation will be held under the big tent at Montpelier. The museum is gaining a reputation for honoring those who serve. Last year, it drew hundreds of locals and visitors, including many veterans, with a five-day visit of The Moving Wall, a memorial that displays the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam.

Hegar represents the generation of warriors who have fought in more recent wars, including Afghanistan. Her career also shows the way the U.S. military is changing as it slowly embraces the reality that women and men now fight side by side.

Asked who her heroes were growing up, the first name she offered was cocky pilot Han Solo from the Star Wars franchise.

"Going around the asteroids was the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life," she said. "I was like, I want to do that. We don't have Millennium Falcons and asteroid fields, but helicopters dodging RPGs was about the closest I could get."

In her book, she also mentions the Tom Cruise character Maverick from the movie "Top Gun" as a secret inspiration to most of those going into the Air Force to be pilots.

From an early age she wanted to be a pilot, but her book details the long, hard journey to reach her goal in a society where many still view military combat in general and the work of an Air Force pilot in particular as "men's work." In fact, a favorite teacher told her point-blank, "Defending our nation should be left to the strong, and it's no place for a woman."

Every step of the way, from playing high school sports to working in the cockpit of an Air Force medevac helicopter, she had to maintain focus on her goal and be the best in her group. "The path ahead of me wouldn't be an easy one," she wrote in her book. "Good. I never liked things easy."

Her advice to young women is to "charge through whatever barriers and obstacles are in your way."

"Always be surprised if you're being discriminated against," she said. "Never assume you're being discriminated against."

She urged women to work hard to better themselves and prove those who would discriminate against them wrong.

On her third tour in Afghanistan in July 2009, her courage proved that teacher and others wrong. She flew as co-pilot in a medevac helicopter sent to rescue soldiers wounded in a convoy that was under attack from Taliban fighters. As the helicopter landed, a "dumb luck" gunshot from the Taliban punched a hole through the windshield in front of her, sending shrapnel into her arm and her leg. As blood spread to a basketball-sized puddle on her leg, she argued against abandoning her mission, telling her worried teammates she still had full use of her arm and could do her job.

As the wounded were loaded into the helicopter, it came under heavy machine gun fire, riddling its tail with bullets. Fuel leaking from a punctured line meant that even after it took off from the battlefield, it did not have enough juice to make it back to base. They were forced to make a hard landing. Then, injured as she was, she got out her gun and stood ready to fight the Taliban that were headed to their position.

Fortunately, she and the members of her crew were flown out of the fighting by other U.S. combat helicopters in the area, but even that meant riding outside the aircraft on the "skid" at a speed of 130 knots.

When she got back to base, she headed straight for the Tactical Operations Center, even as a fellow airman chased her, trying to assess her injuries. Her only concern was finding out the status of the rest of her team.

"Everyone made it," she was told. "Three beautiful words."

She earned the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, making her just the sixth woman in history to receive it.

Still, she was faced with the attitudes of some that women do not belong in combat. Back home, she joined a lawsuit in an effort to eliminate the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, which prohibited assigning women to ground combat positions in the military.

The rule did not actually prevent women from being sent into combat, she explained. The reality is that women are often required in combat, sometimes because they are the best at a certain job and are needed for a special mission, or at other times, such as a meeting with a village warlord, when a woman is needed to pat down the female villagers entering the meeting.

Because they cannot be assigned to a permanent position as part of a unit, they are brought in for these assignments on a temporary basis using various loopholes to get around the rule.

The problem with that, Hegar explained, is that these women in combat have no opportunity to train with the team they're serving in, putting everyone in danger. She stresses the importance of a combat team knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses and anticipating each other in the field as a result of training together.

The other challenge was that women could not get the promotions they deserved, and in some cases the benefits they needed. She said the VA might not believe a woman had PTSD because she was supposedly not in combat.

"If you don't want women to be in combat, fight a different fight," she said. "That policy wasn't keeping women out of combat."

She argued the issue was more about military effectiveness than women's rights and her superiors agreed, eliminating the rule.

"I never thought of myself as a woman in the military. I was an airman in the military," she said. "I didn't feel like my opportunities were being stifled, but part of that is because I was in the Air Force and 99 percent of the jobs were open to women in the Air Force."

"Since the field has been opened to females, women have proven to be some of the best pilots in every branch," she writes in her book. "Women have been awarded medals and given command positions. They've shown resilience as prisoners of war, served as instructors, and done everything their male counterparts do without the predicted downfall of the American way of life."

"Not every man has the skill set or warrior spirit for combat," she writes. "Not every woman does, either. But everyone that does have that skill set should be afforded the opportunity to compete for jobs that enable them to serve in the way their heart calls them."

Hegar said she let every barrier motivate her. Those who made sexist comments along the way did not discourage her, but helped push her across the finish line.

As for the future, she is not ready to share many details yet, but she said she is strongly considering getting involved in politics.

In addition to her talk, "Boots on the Ground" will include musters, music, lunch, special activities for children and tours of Montpelier. For more information about that event, contact the Knox Museum at 354-8062 or visit knoxmuseum.org.

For more on Hegar, visit mjhegar.com.

Daniel Dunkle can be reached at ddunkle@villagesoup.com or 594-4401 ext. 122. Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.