The words “determination” and “challenge” pop up so regularly in conversation with her as to allow no doubt: the gentle path underfoot, the easy way, has never been, never will be, an acceptable option for Abigail Gooch.
They were the twin engines that pushed her at age 17, over the strong objections of her mother, to run her first marathon, and to a 5th-place finish in her age group, and to constantly test herself to find out what kind of stuff she’s got.
Tell this Auburn native and 2016 Auburn Riverside High School graduate “you can’t do that,” and she’ll find all she needs and more in her tenacious 5 feet 3 inches to make it happen.
“I’m a stubborn person,” Gooch said. “And I think, thanks to my dad, I grew up with the mentality that I am not beholden to something because of my gender or my height. If I work hard enough, I know I can do it.”
Just watch her go.
After Gooch, 22, graduates from Army ROTC at the University of Washington as a second lieutenant next week, she’ll commission as an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army Aviation Program at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where the army will make a combat helicopter pilot out of her. She will also attend SERE School (Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape) and Dunk School.
Few are the women who make it into the male-dominated field of military aviation. Indeed, she’ll be Army ROTC UW’s first woman to do it, and its first graduate to be accepted into the program since 2014.
But Gooch has already distinguished herself.
A member of the Washington National Guard since her sophomore year at UW, Gooch was awarded the Army Achievement Medal in Boot Camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and was UW’s ROTC Battalion Commander, the highest rank for a UW student. She is a member of the UW Triathlon Club, and also completed Officer Training at Fort Knox Kentucky, Artillery Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Airborne Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, with a high GPA.
Given the current civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, she is now on standby duty with the Washington National Guard.
None of this was in Gooch’s plan when she joined junior ROTC in high school or when she entered college as a member of the Air Force ROTC at UW.
“I wanted to be an engineer, work at Boeing like my dad does, like my brother, Casey, does, that’s what was expected of me,” Gooch said. “I went to UW thinking that was the goal. I did engineering for a year, and realized I hated it. I love math and science, but I didn’t have time for friends, no socializing or working out or anything else, just engineering. It was very competitive at UW, and I realized I didn’t like that lifestyle, which didn’t push me in any other areas except academically.”
“My brother’s an engineer, amazing, the smartest guy I know, but I wanted more of a physical challenge and professionalism and to work with people, and I love to scare myself. I love working with people,” Gooch said.
The Air Force, she decided, wasn’t enough of a challenge for her, and engineering wasn’t enough of a challenge for her. So, after a quarter off from college, after what she calls “my mid-college crisis,” she enlisted in the Army National Guard, Washington State, as a 13 Bravo, an artilleryman, a possibility for women only since 2015, with an eye on becoming a helicopter mechanic.
“I tried to go infantry as well, but I wasn’t allowed to because there was no female leadership in the state of Washington, which was kind of disappointing,” Gooch said. “If I had gone active duty at that point, I could have enlisted as an infantryman because that’s a nationwide thing, but in Washington state, you have to have another female in your chain of command, so I couldn’t enlist until there was a sergeant or officer, and there were none.
“Later that year, I went to Fort Jackson for basic combat training and had an awesome time. It completely changed my life, and I realized that the Army is where I want to be in the mlitary. Basic combat training was probably some of the best months of my life,” Gooch said.
“The artillery rounds we have to lift are 100 pounds. There’s a high-physical demand test we had to take at Fort Sill for 13 Bravo Training. What tripped a lot of the females up was lifting 15, 100-pound rounds and loading them into this, like, honeycomb loading dock and unloading them in a certain amount of time.”
Encouragement from her mates in her freshman year had already given her the idea she could pilot aircraft, so she went on some orientation flights. In her senior year, she applied for the one of the coveted slots in the Army training program at Fort Rucker.
“I got some really awesome leadership opportunities through ROTC at UW and met great people. I got to go to airborne school last year and jump out of airplanes, which was so much fun and I got paid to do it. I found out in October of this year I was going active duty and had got a pilot’s slot, which was really awesome. It’s been a while since anyone at UW has become a pilot,” Gooch said.
“Growing up, I think I kind of learned my mentality from my dad because my brother has autism and Aspergers, and growing up that was kind of confusing for me, I think. I was always a people person, and by brother very much wasn’t, and how my parents chose to parent him is different from how they parented me and he needed a lot of help, and because he needed a lot of help, I went the opposite direction and wanted to be completely independent and didn’t want anyone to help me, ever.”
So, where her brother gravitated toward electronics and technology, she said, she felt the pull toward sports such as basketball and soccer, the latter in which she lettered in all four of her high school years. In her senior year at Auburn Riverside High School, she was captain of the varsity girls soccer team.
All of this astounding her parents, Craig and Karen Gooch, at the being they brought into the world.
“We’re not military family at all, this is all her, she did all this on her own,” said her mother, Karen Gooch. “Once she got into this, we didn’t discourage her. I guess we encouraged her a little but not a lot. We never dreamed she would be military, but she was determined. And she is extremely smart. I don’t know where she gets it.”