Celebrating Women Veterans: Women Have Always Served

On this Veterans Day, it’s important to remember the contributions women have made by serving in the US military since this country’s founding.

The first American woman soldier was Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts.  She enlisted in the Continental Army under the name of “Robert Shurtliff”.  Sampson served for three years in the Revolutionary War.  She was wounded twice; she cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so no doctor would find out she was a woman.  At the end of the war, George Washington gave her an honorable discharge.

A century later, 250 women enlisted in the American Civil War, for either the Union or the Confederacy.   Although it was not deemed socially acceptable, women (like their predecessors) signed up claiming to be men.  Union soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, enlisted under the alias of Private Lyons Wakeman.  She served in the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Her complete letters describing her experiences in the Union Army are in the book, An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862–1864.

In World War I, about 13,000 women enlisted into the armed forces and were admitted into active duty in the Navy and Marines and a much smaller number admitted into the Coast Guard.  Mostly, these women served in clerical positions.  Nevertheless, they received the same benefits and responsibilities as men, including identical pay (i.e., $28.75 per month), and were treated as veterans after the war.

The Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps or WAC was established in the United States in 1942.

Women “officially” saw combat during World War II, first as nurses in the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941. The Woman’s Naval Reserve and Marine Corps Women’s Reserve were also created during this conflict.  In July 1943, a bill was signed removing auxiliary from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, making it an official part of the regular army.  In 1944, WACs arrived in the Pacific and landed in Normandy on D-Day. During the war, women gained over 1,500 medals, citations and commendations.

Law 625, The Women’s Armed Services Act of 1948, was signed by President Truman, allowing women to serve in the armed forces in fully integrated units during peace time, with only the WAC remaining a separate female unit.

During the Korean War from 1950–1953, women served in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals.  About 120,000 women served in Korea during the conflict.  Next, came the Vietnam War.  While the official number of women soldiers are not clear, approximately 600 women served as part of the Air Force, along with 500 members of the WAC, and over 6,000 medical personnel and support staff.

The Ordnance Corps began accepting female missile technicians in 1974, and female crewmembers and officers were accepted into Field Artillery missile units.

In 1974, the first six women aviators to earn their wings as Navy pilots were Jane Skiles O’Dea, Barbara Allen Rainey, Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Judith Ann Neuffer, Ana Marie Fuqua, and Joellen Drag Oslund.

In Grenada in 1983, over 200 women served in the military. Some women, such as Lt Col Eileen Collins and Lt. Celeste Hayes, flew transport aircraft carrying wounded or assault teams.

Several hundred women took part in operations. In Panama in 1989, in non-combat roles. On December 20, 1989, Capt Linda L. Bray became the first woman to command U.S. soldiers in battle, during the invasion of Panama.  She was assigned to lead a force of 30 men and women military personnel to capture a kennel holding guard dogs that was defended by elements of the Panamanian Defense force.

The 1991, Gulf War brought greater media attention to the role of women in the American armed forces. Over 40,000 women served in almost every role the armed forces had to offer. They were not permitted to participate in deliberate ground engagements. Many came under fire, however, and there are many reports of women engaging enemy forces.  One example is that of the USS Mount HOOD, AE-29, Pacific Fleet ammunitions carrier in Battle Group Bravo. The Mt. Hood’s sister ship, which was all male, was grounded after hitting a mine. The Mt. Hood, regardless of having at least 32 women on board, filled in. The women aboard the USS Mt. Hood, AE-29, may be the enlisted Navy’s very first Congressionally-recognized women ordered to combat in a Congressionally declared war. From the women leaders aboard came the first African-American female Admiral in the history of the United States Navy, Admiral and second in command of the United States Navy as Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michelle Howard.

In 2005, the first all female C-130 Hercules crew served a combat mission for the U.S. Air Force.

Today, women can serve on American combat ships, including in command roles, and on submarines.

In Afghanistan, Monica Lin Brown, was presented the Silver Star for shielding wounded soldiers with her body, and then treating life-threatening injuries.  As of March 2012, the U.S. military had two women, Ann E. Dunwoody and Janet C. Wolfenbarger, with the rank of four-star general.

Let’s be clear:  Women are a vital part of the armed forces and the community of veterans.  As we honor both men and women of our military, here are a few suggestions:

  • Observe a moment of silence at 11:00 on Veteran’s Day.
  • Contact a military base to find out what deployed troops need and organize an event to pack care packages
  • Visit a Veterans Hospital
  • Take time out to acknowledge veterans in your workplace
  • Support veteran-owned businesses
  • Personally acknowledge and thank service men and women you encounter

I would like to especially acknowledge and thank the many members of Federally Employed Women who are veterans and service members. Your sacrifice and commitment to our nation and its citizens is deeply appreciated.  God bless you and God bless these United States of America.