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A Woman Making History is Tough as Nails

Tough as Nails contestant, shares her story during an interview on March 23, 2021. Retired U.S. Air Force Col Merryl Tengesdal made history as the first and only black woman to pilot the U-2 Dragon Lady.

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Retired Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, poses for a portrait for the show Tough As Nails. (Photo provided by CBS/GAIL SCHULMAN)

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Retired Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, works on stadium seats during the episode "Pour Your Heart Out" on Tough As Nails. (Photo provided by CBS/GAIL SCHULMAN)

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Merryl Tengesdal from the CBS series Tough As Nails. (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2020)

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U.S. Air Force Retired Col. Merryl Tengesdal participates in a team challenge during episode “True Colors” (Courtesy Photo CBS ©2021)

Photo of Merryl Tengesdal

Retired Air Force Col. Merryl Tengesdal poses for a photo from the CBS series Tough As Nails. (Courtesy Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2020)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

When you were 7 years old and your first grade teacher leaned down with a huge smile on their face and asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What do you remember saying?   

Some kids said firefighters or teachers, some said doctors or scientists, and some said pilots. Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Merryl Tengesdal was one of the dreamers who looked into her future and saw an astronaut. Tengesdal shot for the moon and she reached the stars. 

“I always knew that I wanted to boldly go where no one has gone before,” Tengesdal said. “I knew what I wanted to do and I kept consistent.” 

Tengesdal’s Air Force career began after serving 10 years in the Navy, where she was a Naval Aviator. But, the Navy wasn’t enough for her, becoming an astronaut was still her dream. Her leadership helped her to find a new path as a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot at Beale Air Force Base, California. 

"At the time I wondered how I could make my resume look different from other applicants for NASA,” Tengesdal said. “That’s what led me out there.” 

After being accepted into the U-2 program and getting certified in 2004, Tengesdal became the first, and to this day, the only black woman to pilot a U-2, making history. This attested to her resilience and her unyielding willingness to conquer obstacles.  

“I did not join the U-2 community to set any historical markers,” Tengesdal said. “That was never my intent, I was just doing my passion.” 

Tengesdal dedicated 23 years to the military and attributes her commitment, her drive and relentlessness to achieving her goals. 

”While I didn’t become an astronaut, the journey was incredible,” Tengesdal said.  

Tengesdal worked hard to be the best she could be and in doing so she established an unwavering bar, 70,000 feet high, where she led the Air Force to a bolder and brighter future. 

“Most people who understand me know that when I mean something I’m going to do it,” Tengesdal said. “It is going to get done.” 

In 2015, Tengesdal was met with yet another fork in her road. For her family, she was prepared to shut the door to her military career and open another to motherhood. 

To her surprise retired Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, former director of Joint Artificial Intelligence Center,  listened to her story and stepped in. He wrote a letter to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and advocated for the retainment of Tengesdal as the director of inspections for the Inspector General of the Air Force. Thus, allowing her to prioritize her family and to continue doing what she does best while serving at the Pentagon. 

“This General who didn’t know me, made a pitch for me,” Tengesdal said. “It made me realize that there are people at the top, even though we may not see it, who are working really hard to do the right thing.” 

Tengesdal made an extraordinary and historic achievement and served among those who went the distance for their wingmen. Now she has pushed herself through a strenuous competition on the CBS series ‘Tough as Nails’. 

While Tengesdal may be out of the individual competition as of the latest episode “Orange You Glad You’re Tough?”. She will use her drive and relentlessness to help push her team “Savage Crew” to try and win the team competition for the rest of the season. 

“Its hard to do it by yourself,” Tengesdal said. “But for those Airmen out there who feel lost, go talk to someone, find someone who is doing what you want to do and pick their brain. Forge your own path.” 

Tengesdal embarked on a journey full of challenges, but continues to overcome obstacles and making history. A woman with a constant drive to succeed is without a doubt tough as nails.