Seeing New Opportunities

Kristina Connelly and her crew prior to departing for a mission in IraqKristina Connelly and fellow soldiers outside of a Saddam Hussein palace

Kristina Connelly Comes to SDM via West Point and Iraq

By Sarah Foote, Courtesy of News@MITSloan
November 5, 2007

Kristina Connelly never expected to be a student enrolled in the System Design and Management (SDM) program at MIT. Her career in the Army has taken her around the world and back, but she is grateful for the opportunity to be at MIT and is excited to learn in such a diverse and challenging environment.

Growing up in Los Angeles Kristina was exposed to a lot of different things and she participated in numerous activities and sports. When she was younger she thought about possibly working in the medical field because the idea of helping people appealed to her, but had so many interests it made it hard for her to think about just one. When it came time to look at colleges she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study or where she wanted to go, until a recruiter from West Point visited her high school. She was intrigued with idea of studying at the military institute, traveling around the world, and the opportunity to have different assignments once finished with school. She hadn’t thought about the military, but the idea of flying had always intrigued her, and Kristina saw the Army as a great place to learn how.

Kristina Connelly and her crew prior to departing for a mission in Iraq

Kristina majored in environmental engineering at West Point while also pursuing new challenges such joining the crew team and running the first of several marathons. When she completed her degree she wanted to go to flight school but her eyesight had degraded over the four years preventing her from qualifying for Aviation, so she received her second choice and was selected for Military Intelligence. "I was really lucky. I was first stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado and was made a Platoon Leader right away – which is rare for a Military Intelligence Officer. I was quickly in charge of 20-30 people," she says of the challenging experience.

As an Intelligence Officer, Kristina was placed in an aviation unit after her year as a Platoon Leader. Because she was around Pilots all the time it sparked her interest in flying again. At the same time, the Army opened up branch transfers to Aviation and Kristina thought about preparing a packet for the selection process. She knew her eyesight was an issue, and was a bit nervous about laser eye surgery, but went ahead with the procedure – a decision she has never regretted. She then submitted all of the necessary paperwork and was selected for flight school.

Kristina was in flight school for less than a year where she learned how to fly helicopters, starting on a TH-67, an aircraft similar to news helicopters and then working her way up to the UH60 Blackhawk. "It’s a lot fun," Kristina says of learning to fly. "You start with basic flight maneuvers, then move to instrument training where you learn about flying in the clouds, instrument approaches, and later the way you maneuver in the air. Then you go through navigation training where you learn to navigate using maps, terrain, and recognize landing zones. Then you move on to the actual aircraft that you are going to fly in the Army. You quickly learn how to handle day flights, unaided night flights – flights without night vision goggles (NVGs), and then you fly at night with the NVGs. It’s hard to get used to flying at night with the NVGs. When you are in the States there isn’t that much of a call for it, especially in populated well-lit areas. But when I was in Iraq I used them quite a bit while I was there," she said. Kristina notes that Blackhawks can fly up to 193 knots, which is the equivalent of 222 miles per hour, but most of her combat missions required speeds of 120-150 knots (138-172 mph).

Before Kristina was sent to Iraq she spent a year in South Korea and then was stationed in Hawaii for almost a year where she developed a passion for surfing, wakeboarding, and golf. As a Company Commander in Iraq she was in charge of 10 Blackhawk helicopters, as well as 60 soldiers, and all Distinguished Visitor and VIP transportation. Every day she flew the Commanding General for the 25th Infantry Division and the two Deputy Commanding Generals to various bases and other locations within Iraq, Turkey, and Kuwait. Kristina and her company flew other VIPs during the time she was stationed there, and had the opportunity to transport several Iraqi Generals, government officials, the Vice President, General Petraus, various U.S. Congressmen, and even several celebrities. "We also flew a lot of night missions – transporting troops to various locations within the country. It’s safer to transport soldiers at night. We also flew the new A2C2S aircraft that has a command center in the back of the helicopter with computers, radios, and other communication devices to assist with combat operations on the ground. Commanders communicate with soldiers on the battlefield while running the operation from the air," says Kristina.

On occasion, Kristina and her soldiers also escorted MEDEVAC helicopters. MEDEVAC helicopters are also Blackhawks but they are unarmed, and therefore become easy targets due to the big medical red cross on the sides and bottom and the fact that the opposition knows that they don’t have weapons on board. "It’s very exciting to escort MEDEVAC missions. You get the call, then you’re in the air, and then you’re on the go. This all happens in just minutes. I also tried to give my soldiers a variety of missions besides just the VIP flights so they could gain experience on different types of missions; it’s important to give them different conditions to fly in as well," says Kristina.

SDM then on to West Point

A few years ago Kristina had heard that the Systems Engineering Department at West Point was looking for instructors. Teaching sounded interesting to Kristina as well as a great way to give back to West Point, so she quickly filled out the necessary paperwork and was selected. Once selected to teach, the Army lets the soldier pick from a select list of schools to apply to for advanced degrees. MIT is on the list and quickly became Kristina’s top choice. "Those who I consider mentors in the Army are also aviators who went to grad school, taught at West Point, and then jumped right back into flying. It’s difficult, but I think it’s still a possibility," says Kristina of returning to flying after teaching.

Kristina hadn’t heard about MIT’s SDM program until the Director of the Systems Engineering Department at West Point told her about it. She looked into the program and then spoke with current students in SDM to hear their thoughts. SDM sounded appealing to her and she liked the idea of moving to the East Coast. "I feel lucky that the opportunity came along. I never would have thought of myself being at MIT," said Kristina.

This fall, Kristina is taking Core courses and also a couple of elective courses including a computer class, hoping to build on those skills. She also enjoys listening to her classmates’ perspectives on things. "It’s amazing the careers my classmates have had so far in what I call the ‘real world.’ It’s one of the great aspects of this program – the diversity. And that was one of the things that attracted me to SDM. I’m definitely looking forward to the next two years," she says. Adding, "It’s also great to learn about motivating employees and really looking at the human factor at work. Having been in the Army and in the environment of Iraq, I feel my strengths are in those areas. I like to help the people who work for me and with me; sometimes you can make a difference in their lives and that is amazing" Kristina says.

Besides her classes, Kristina is looking forward to exploring Boston and is eager to go snowboarding this winter. After 12 months in Iraq she says she appreciates the little things again, like buying new clothes, eating at restaurants, exploring museums, and is eager to get back into sports and other activities. "Being in Iraq does give you a different perspective on things. It changed my mind about a lot. I really do appreciate the little things more now," she says.

Kristina will finish the SDM program in 2009 and then plans to return to West Point to teach for three years. She is excited about the opportunity to give back to school and the community there, and plans to become an advisor or work with a sports team to create stronger bonds with the cadets. "Being a Company Commander in the Army is the best job in the world. I love the human factor – to motivate and lead others. To form bonds and to actually change people’s lives is very rewarding," she says. Kristina notes that the only thing better is learning that the soldiers that she led in Iraq recently returned home to the Hawaii base safe and sound. All of them.

Kristina Connelly and fellow soldiers outside of a Saddam Hussein palace