A native of Oradell, New Jersey, Major Marie Theresa Rossi-Cayton was the third of four children born to Paul and Gertrude Rossi, arriving on January 3, 1959. Paul was a book binder and Gertrude worked as a secretary for a firm on Wall Street.
Marie graduated from River Dell Regional High School in 1976, then enrolled in Dickinson College. During her college years, she was also part of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. In 1980, Marie graduated from Dickinson College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. An outstanding R.O.T.C. candidate, following graduation, Marie was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army. In June of 1990, Rossi married Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Anderson Cayton, in Savannah, Georgia.
Upon entering the Army, Marie learned to pilot helicopters. By 1991, she commanded Company B of the Second Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, 18th Aviation Brigade, a CH-47D Chinook helicopter company.
During an interview on CNN prior to the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm, Marie discussed her role as a woman who flew combat missions. Considering it “no big deal”, Marie stated that she “felt ready for the challenge” in respect to her career as a pilot. She also stated she would be among the first to cross into Iraq when the ground war started.
At the time the Gulf War broke out, both Marie and her husband, another helicopter pilot, were deployed to Saudi Arabia, and assigned to different units. Marie’s duties involved flying fuel and ammunition for the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, who were rapidly advancing. Many times she dropped off fuel and supplies ahead of the friendly forces deep into enemy territory.
32-year-old Major Cayton and three of her crew were later killed when their CH-47D Chinook helicopter collided in bad weather with a microwave relay tower which was not lit. When the accident occurred, the Chinook was on its way back to the base in Saudi Arabia following a supply run to combat zone troops; the day after Operation Desert Storm’s ceasefire took place.
Major Rossi was buried in Arlington Cemetery. The simple epitaph serves to commemorate the pioneering sacrifice which Marie demonstrated as the “First Female Combat Commander to Fly into Battle”.
In 1992, Major Rossi was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame.
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“What I'm doing is no greater or less than the man who is flying next to me or in back of me . . .” Major Marie Theresa Rossi-Cayton