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Cocktail on the Avenue

Thursday, October 1, 2015
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I really didn’t know what to expect from my meeting with Casey Martinez. As a former U.S. military Black Hawk pilot who has flown on multiple operational tours of Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict areas, and was awarded three Bronze Stars for her service, I was a little unsure what to expect. So when a tall, super-fit brunette turns up at the Jade Bar in a turquoise dress and ready smile, I’m surprised at how soft-spoken and down-to-earth she is. For someone who has been responsible for keeping many men alive in combat, she’s appears very relaxed and easygoing.


Martinez and I are meeting for a cocktail to talk about Capstar, a venture just starting in Manhattan that employs ex-servicemen and women as chauffeurs. Already a successful enterprise in the UK where the company just completed their 10,000th ride, Capstar is supported by Jaguar and Land Rover. Capstar chauffeurs will drive brand-new Jaguars starting September in Manhattan, with plans to expand to Washington, D.C., in 2016.


Leaving her venture aside for the moment, I can’t help but being curious what impelled Casey to join the military. It turns out that joining the armed services was something of a family business for her. Everyone was in the armed forces: her father, grandfather, uncles and brother-in-law. Casey was one of three girls, but that didn’t stop her. At 17 she marched off to West Point, the same school her father attended, in order to compete against some of the most type-A people in the country. Then, because Martinez is just a tiny bit of an overachiever, she went into special operations aviation.


When I ask her what made her choose such a tough path, she says, “It is being told no, you can’t. It’s being told you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not fit enough. Whatever it is that you have chosen to do in your life, you don’t want to have a ceiling put on it and say that you can’t get to the next level because you’re a girl.”


She is very matter-of-fact when it comes to describing her actual experience of being deployed. “What’s fun is that actually flying the aircraft is not so terribly difficult once you’ve mastered it. That’s not the hard part; the hard part is when you have five different radios blaring in your ear, and you’re trying to fly within two rotor disks (of the machine in front of you) and not crash and you’re trying to avoid enemy fire. You’re juggling all balls and you’re trying to stay one step ahead of what’s about to be thrown at you. When you can, it’s such a high.”


She gently bats away my suggestion that she was a superhero for winning her three bronze stars. But I certainly think she’s pretty impressive.


One of her tougher assignments was during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when she was the air mission commander for her group of five helicopters and the radios all failed, meaning that they had to land with no ground communication. It sounds like it was a miserable time: everyone wore achingly hot chemical suits, and they flew between 8- to 10-hour days.


In spite of the hardships she endured, Casey smiles to herself, savoring the memory of her glory days. I have to say that looking at how happy she seems, I’m nearly ready to sign up for basic training myself, but I content myself with a sip of my watermelon mint martini.


Surely, I say to her, it must have been tough to be a woman on this job. What about having to answer the call of nature among 40 guys when you are in the desert with nary a bush in sight? Martinez says that yes, it was complicated for her: if she needed to address her personal needs she had to take off her flight suit, her armored vest and one other full body suit. If it was exasperating for her, Martinez does not seem unduly irritated by the realities of being a woman in combat.


Although Martinez is clearly a competent soldier, she is also a very feminine one. She wore makeup when she was flying “to even out her skin tone,” she claims, though I can see nothing wrong with it. She never wore any jewelry, as it’s not allowed. It doesn’t sound like she would be bothered to wear earrings even if she could. For the first two months of the invasion of Iraq, they all slept in the back of the helicopters.


I ask her if she encountered any sexism while she was in service, and she is careful with her next words: “I think it’s great in the US Army—they are really against sexual assault. However it is a big cultural problem in the military—you can say rape is bad, but there is still work to be done. When there are 85 percent men and 15 percent women, it’s a very slow process. It does change slowly over the years, but we have a long way to go.”


Martinez has had her share of weird flirty comments from her soldiers and one
commander, who had the temerity when she was leaving active service to say that she was “best-dressed” and threw the best party because she had once organized a Christmas dinner. This is after three tours of duty where she was away from family and friends for nearly a year each time, flying in dangerous and exhausting conditions.


I sense there is more to this story, but Martinez politely steers the conversation back to how happy she is to be using her expertise to help veterans, many of whom joined up after 9/11. Martinez always asks the candidates why they joined the army, and frequently the answer is that they lost a family member in 9/11 or were somehow affected by the tragedy. “I think veterans really struggle when they get out. In the military they’ve been given a high level of responsibility, and to turn around and come home and not be able to translate that to their employers when they’re being considered for jobs makes them feel isolated.” All the drivers are screened by a medical doctor before they get hired.


Martinez assures me that the drivers are incredibly disciplined and reliable. “Most of the guys we hire are capable of doing something more, and they want to work with people who understand how they got to where they are.” Capstar aims to help the vets transition from being drivers and hopefully move up to middle management once they’ve expanded. Their prices sound competitive with other top-shelf limo companies of the same caliber: $165 to JFK, $165 to Newark and $145 to LaGuardia. It’s $95 an hour with a two hour booking. 


Martinez knows exactly why she took this job: she had great offers from J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs on the table, but she walked away from them. “There is social enterprise and depth to what we do. I believe in what we’re doing, and it’s so easy to be passionate about this company when you’re helping other veterans.”


Our drinks are finished, and as we walk to the door I’m on such a high from meeting this amazing person. If they ever decide to recast G.I. Jane, I think they should use Martinez as the role model. She is one action figure I would definitely buy for my sons. Φ


capstarchauffeurs.com

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