Mississippi Army pilot uses faith to navigate life, career

Published 7:27 am Saturday, July 23, 2022

If you see an Army-green Lakota helicopter flying anywhere over North Mississippi, chances are 1st Lt. Sarah Gunnells is the pilot.

“I fly just about every day,” the 26-year-old Tupelo native said.

Gunnells is stationed at the Army Aviation Support Facility on West Jackson Street in Tupelo, where she is part of the 10-member Delta Company medevac team. She just returned to the Magnolia State after a year-long stint flying border patrol missions from a military base in El Centro, California.

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“It was awesome,” Gunnells said with a smile. “It was the most exciting Army mission I’ve done to date. We usually flew at night, wearing night vision goggles. It was a cool mission.”

These days, Gunnells and her Tupelo crew spread their flight time between training runs and support missions.

“We do a lot of training flights to keep busy,” she said. “We do medevac flights, and we work with law enforcement in search and rescue. Mississippi is a hotspot for hurricanes and tornadoes, so we also work with a civilian task force doing storm rescue missions.”

Back on her home turf, Gunnells said she pretty well knows her way around, even from a few thousand feet above the ground.

“We have two Garmin GPS systems,” she said. “But after a while, especially when you’re flying local, you pretty much know where you’re going.”

Gunnells’ Army career started when she enlisted at 19. She said her first gig was behind a different kind of wheel.

“I was a truck driver for two years,” she said. “’88 Mike — that’s the designation for Army Transport. Two-tons, Humvees, big rigs; I drove them all. I spent two weeks of training in Missouri learning how to back up an 18-wheeler.”

After graduating from Ole Miss, Gunnells made her way to flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where she eventually got behind the controls of her first helicopter.

“I took my ‘Nickel Ride,’” she said. “It’s a longtime tradition in Army aviation: You find a nickel with your birth year on it, and after that first ride, you give it to your flight instructor when you get back safely on the ground.”

As a person of faith, Gunnells said another sort of “grounding” is equally important to her.

“The Army can be a difficult place to bring the light of Christ,” she said. “But it can also be a place where it’s needed and welcomed. A lot of people are starved for that light, and a little bit of positivity can go a long way.”

As in most work environments, a positive outlook can make all the difference in the Army, Gunnells said.

“Things go wrong in the Army all the time,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s one train wreck after the other. But if you have the right mindset, you can find something positive, even if it’s just lessons learned.”

As the oldest of six siblings who were homeschooled and raised in a conservative Christian environment, Gunnells said she feels rooted in her faith, even when it is challenged.

“Being in leadership, those values have helped me make hard decisions,” she said. “I’ve been challenged in my faith. You have to know what you stand for. You can’t be wishy-washy. That’s when you get into trouble.”

Looking back, Gunnells said she has no regrets.

“I’d do it all again,” she said. “It’s been a really good life decision for me. The Army whipped me into shape and showed me what’s important in life. It taught me the importance of being part of something bigger than yourself, and learning to work with people so different from you to accomplish the mission.”