Jennifer Fortenberry, (Major, US Army, Retired), says she’s often asked, “What in the world would possibly make you and your sister both want to become combat helicopter pilots?” Her answer to folks is, “Have you met our dad?”
For many Americans, military service comes not only from a love of country and a sense of duty, but also from strong family traditions. Fortenberry, as well as her twin sister, followed in the footsteps of their famous father, Dick Fortenberry, to pilot helicopters for our country.
The elder Fortenberry served in Vietnam where he was a helicopter pilot and shared his work ethic with his daughters.
“We were raised by two very strong, independent people,” Fortenberry says. “Mom was a nurse and Dad was a member of the 77th special forces group back in the 1950s. He ended up becoming one of the best skydivers in the world at the time. He was the first skydiver on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was the first one to do a dead-center landing in competition.”
The pride is obvious in Fortenberry’s voice as she speaks of her father.
“He was one of the first people to do a skydive jump from 30,000 feet. He won the World Championship in 1962 and the national championship three times in a row. He was the only person to have done so at that point.”
Fortenberry remembers, “He was pretty well-known when he went to Vietnam. It was so inspiring to learn from him and his friends and hear their experiences. He was out of the military by the time my identical twin sister and I were born, but we certainly benefited from his lessons. So, yeah…it was a community, and my sister and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Many of her parents’ friends were also aviators.
“I had a lot of aviators in my life, in and around my family. They all had a lot of cool stories and I really looked up to them. I was so inspired and I wanted to understand what they’re talking about. I wanted to have these stories and experiences of my own.”
Fortenberry and her sister both participated in ROTC in college while striving first and foremost for a career of their own in aviation.
“Aviation was our first choice,” she says. “However, we would have still served our country, regardless.”
Fortenberry said their dad was proud of them, but he was tough and didn’t mince words.
“I remember my sister was on her first night cross-country flight and she got lost over Lake Okeechobee. She got really scared and had to do an emergency landing at the nearest airport. She called Dad crying about the experiences. He calmly said to her, ‘Well, first things first… there’s no crying in aviation.’ So, that was always a thing with us. He taught us that everything we go through in life is character building.”
Fortenberry took that character-building into her helicopter pilot training at Fort Rucker, AL, in 2005. On her first deployment to Afghanistan, she was the platoon leader and then accompanied the 101st Airborne on her second deployment. Overall, she served ten years active duty with two tours of Afghanistan and one tour of Iraq piloting Blackhawks.
“I was in charge of Bravo Company with 67 aircrew members from Hunter and 14 helicopters – all but one came back.” Fortenberry flew strictly Blackhawk helicopters. “I actually survived a crash in Afghanistan and we had to get extracted,” she shared. “When you’re flying back in another aircraft and realize your aircraft isn’t coming back—and you’re the pilot—well, it’s an eye-opening experience.”
Both sisters were deployed in the Middle East at the same time, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ve tended to rotate on locations a lot,” Fortenberry said. “We were in Iraq at the same time, but we didn’t see each other and we weren’t in the same location. My sister’s first duty station was here at Hunter and mine was at Fort Campbell. Then, my sister ended up going to Fort Campbell and I ended up going to Korea for a year and then to Hunter. I was in the same battalion she was in only a year before. People were confused seeing me, thinking I was my sister.”
The Hostess City called Fortenberry to stay in the area post-military service.
“I’m actually from Tampa, but I really like Savannah because it’s big enough where there’s a lot of stuff going on and plenty to do, but there’s not a ton of traffic like a big city. Savannah’s got a lot of character.”
It was at this time Fortenberry became involved with the American Legion and other veteran organizations.
“I was transitioning out of the military and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I ended up getting a job and staying here.” She was pleased to team up with the Veterans Council of Chatham County. “Joe Higgins, the chairman, has done a great job bringing everyone—all 27 veteran-focused organizations in Chatham County—together and working as a team for the community. We all already know how to work as a unit and it’s wonderful to be part of such a strong military community.”
The American Legion was established and chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. According to their data, the Savannah/Chatham County area has a population of 285,560 veterans—in a 29 square mile area.
Fortenberry adds, “Congress passed an act last year saying to be a member of the American Legion, one has to have served since 1941, in essence saying the United States has been in a combat situation or conflict since 1941. So, one doesn’t have to have necessarily been ‘in country’ to be a member of the organization.”
She is especially proud of how the American Legion focuses on transitioning military personnel into their new civilian community.
“No matter where you are, transitioning from your military service to your new neighborhood and life can be challenging for some. You are probably not where you were when you left home and you may not have been in your location long enough to connect to the area. That’s where the American Legion comes in.”
“I highly recommend getting involved in the American Legion because it’s has been an amazing transition into the Savannah community for me, as well as providing a great—literally the best—networking experiences,” she stresses.
“Most veterans have expressed to me that when they’ve gotten involved, it’s helped them get more oriented into the community. They get to know veterans, not only from their own branch of service or the same time period, but a spectrum of military members with varying experiences and stories to share. It’s a great place to get to know the community and find like-minded people.”
Fortenberry is impressed by how Savannah’s military bases assist veteran efforts in the city.
“I’m working with the Garrison commander at Hunter to get involved in helping the Legion connect more with those soldiers who are transitioning out of service so they know where they can go for networking events, opportunities, assistance with moving, V.A. medical services, job assistance, family transition, just about anything they might need. We do our best as a community to get someone acquainted with services available to them and what organizations can benefit them and their family.”
Fortenberry feels networking is probably the biggest challenge for our veterans who are just getting out and are looking for work in Savannah.
“Hunter does a great class on transitioning—I should know because I took it—and they teach you how to present yourself in an interview, they give resume tips, networking opportunities, etc. Building your community is the hardest part…and feeling part of a community. This is especially true for any service members who might be dealing with mental health issues and might need someone with shared experiences to talk to. We try to help in all of those circumstances.”
“Most veterans reach out to us through our Facebook page,” Fortenberry says. “We’re good about responding to questions and a lot of folks participate on the posts about the American Legion Post 135. We’re trying to take advantage of networking opportunities available through social media.”
Fortenberry stresses the American Legion not only wants to assist the military veterans of Savannah, but the community and city of Savannah as a whole. They do so by hosting events throughout the year to support their efforts.
“We want new veterans to get involved and think of us as their home away from home. The American Legion is going through a bit of a revitalization in community outreach. We’ve been hosting bands, throwing entertainment parties, and other events to get the entire community together. Before the pandemic, we had a Mardi Gras party in the Bull Street ballroom with over 200 people. Everyone was dressed to impressed and it was an amazing night. We’re looking forward to hosting events again.”
One such event is coming up. The Forty and Eight Society of American Veterans along with the American Legion is hosting a New Year’s Eve Party on December 31 at The Ballroom on Bull Street.
“We’re so excited about the event. We’ll be raising funds for the Nurse Training Scholarships in the Lowcountry area,” Fortenberry said. “One of the primary missions of the Legion is strengthening the local nursing core because back when service members came home from World War I with injuries, it was local nurses who treated and tended to these returning warriors. So, the tradition continues to help keep fantastic nurses in the local community.”
While this country pauses to honor those who have served, this Veteran’s Day, Fortenberry would like her fellow Americans to know, “As an Afghanistan veteran, I know it’s kind of tough right now after the withdrawal situation. However, I want to continue to spread the message that what we did over there was not in vain. We proudly kept America safe for 20 years and avoided another 9/11-type attack. That’s what we did and no one can take that away from you, from us.”
Dick Fortenberry would say that is character building.
And for that, we thank Jennifer, her sister, her father, and all veterans