Mary Gallagher in Iraq. Photo courtesy Mary Gallagher.
By Judy Bass
Sleeping in a tent under the night sky at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in 2001, watching tracers cut a glittering path across the soaring darkness overhead, Mary Gallagher could hardly believe the whirlwind of international events that had taken her from her home in Massachusetts to this ancient, exotic land thousands of miles away.
“Oh, my God,” she recalls thinking, “this is for real.”
Her induction into the turbulent post-9/11 world had begun, an experience that would eventually bring Gallagher around the globe during 12 tours of duty in places such as England, Africa and Iraq as an intel analyst dealing with highly sensitive information for the US Air Force.
Gallagher, now 42, formerly a resident of Dedham who currently lives in Norwood, graduated from Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton in 1991, where she studied Graphic Communications. A friend of her mother’s had suggested that she consider Blue Hills as a potential high school choice, so Gallagher took a tour of the school.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” she says, feeling that enrolling at this school could help her figure out what she wanted to do for a career and provide attractive options for her down the road professionally.
Her expectations, she said, were borne out by the practicality and value of the vocational training she received. “I was head and shoulders over other kids getting out of high school,” Gallagher noted appreciatively, explaining that she had been well-educated at Blue Hills to handle responsibilities, develop a strong work ethic, communicate effectively with others, adhere to a dress code, and deal with a superior, all skills which would come in handy for Gallagher later on in the military.
After her graduation from Blue Hills, Gallagher said she worked in the Graphic Arts field, then spent a semester at Massasoit Community College, earned her associate’s degree from Quincy College, and got a degree in communications from Curry College in Milton.
In 2001, at the age of 27, Gallagher joined the Air Force so she could finish college under the provisions of the GI Bill. Another factor in her desire to be involved in the military was a long-standing tradition of public service in her family. Gallagher said that her brother was in the US Army, retired, then joined the CIA; her father served in Korea; and her mother’s uncle was at Iwo Jima during World War II.
So Gallagher signed up, never anticipating being caught in the outbreak of military action in the Middle East as a result of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
In fact, while she was at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., prior to 9/11 as a member of the Reserves, Gallagher recalls that she and others were told that the last time Westover was activated was decades ago, during the Korean War in the 1950s. In accordance with peacetime requirements, Gallagher was only required to spend one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year participating.
That changed dramatically on an exquisitely clear September morning when two hijacked airliners struck the World Trade Center in New York, another crashed in Shanksville, Pa., and a fourth hit the Pentagon, killing 125 people in the iconic building, along with all the passengers, crew and hijackers aboard the plane.
(Gallagher’s brother was actually at the Pentagon that day, she said, but was fortunately uninjured.)
“For me,” said Gallagher, “it seems like yesterday.” Westover, she remembered, quickly got a fateful phone call to alert everyone that the Pentagon had been hit, and a scramble ensued to watch the unimaginable news on TV.
A week later, Gallagher was activated. Three weeks later, she was in Afghanistan.
Gallagher’s duties would culminate in a position in Mission Support for Air Force Special Command, which, at that time, Gallagher said, was comprised of only 30 people with the security clearance and the training to do the job. Although she is still constrained, for security reasons, not to divulge details, Gallagher did say that she was part of a support group for Special Forces, and would brief SEALS, Rangers, and other “hard chargers” using classified and sensitive information.
She also worked for the National Security Space Office (NSSO), which handles highly classified information.
It wasn’t a breeze, Gallagher said candidly. “You had to roll with the punches,” she explained. She typically put in 17 to 20 grueling hours a day processing a lot of material, multi-tasking, thinking on her feet, and developing, of necessity, a thick skin so as not to take things personally in that high-stakes, breakneck-paced environment.
In 2009, Gallagher was wounded when she was in Baghdad a month before elections were held. There was a hospital on the military base that was admitting casualties after a bomb had gone off in a bazaar. So many seriously hurt people required immediate attention that everyone who was available pitched in to rush them into the medical facility.
Gallagher recalls a badly injured little girl she was helping during that desperate emergency amidst a fierce exchange of gunfire. A massive explosion suddenly rocked the area, Gallagher was lifted right off her feet by the powerful blast, and the next thing she was aware of was waking up in a hospital in Germany, where she was treated for her injuries.
Gallagher returned to the United States at Christmas 2009 and retired from the Air Force in November 2012.
Being back home meant starting the process of recovering physically and emotionally from the high toll taken on her by military service during wartime. One positive step Gallagher took toward restoring her health occurred when her sister got her involved in State Rep. Karyn Polito’s run for Massachusetts State Treasurer in 2010. “It was the first time I enjoyed doing something [after my injury],” Gallagher said.
Polito, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor and the running mate of Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, said in an email, “Mary is a kind and courageous person, with a rock-solid core. She is someone you can always depend on to deliver on a promise. She is a person of enormous strength and talent, and by her own example, inspired me each and every day to work my very best in my campaign for public office. I admire Mary, and thank her for her service to our country.”
Coming from a politically-involved family, it was almost natural for Gallagher to jump in behind the scenes to again play a role. Today, she works for Mass Victory, an arm of the Massachusetts Republican Party which helps GOP candidates.
Reflecting on her military service, Gallagher said, “I gave everything of myself.” It was important to her to “serve a higher cause,” especially in the aftermath of 9/11. There were certainly sacrifices she made along the way. For example, her father died in 2005, while she was stationed in Germany. Gallagher lost friends, she said; some of them will never be the same, like the one she movingly described who watched aghast as hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 swooped down before striking the Pentagon on 9/11 – so low, in fact, that he glimpsed the terror-stricken faces of the doomed passengers through the plane’s windows as they struggled to figure out their location in those last few moments before the horrific lethal impact.
As for herself, Gallagher expressed her pleasure at all the success Blue Hills Regional Technical School, her beloved alma mater, is having, and vowed to keep serving the community and the state in whatever capacity she can.
Right now, she feels home at last.