28 February 2013

Military Women: History that Built a Nation

Since the beginning of time, women have played pivotal roles in cultures all over the world.  As societies vary, so have the roles of women. Historically, women have served as caregivers, cooks, planters, inventors, mechanics, builders and business women. They have even served as leaders in their families and communities.  However, if there is one place where women have transcended the traditional roles of gender to serve as heroically as their male counterparts it is in our nation’s armed forces.

Women served on battlefields as cooks, laundresses, nurses, water bearers, and saboteurs during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. During the nation’s Civil War over 3,000 women served as volunteer nurses providing care to both Union and Confederate soldiers. Many times, women on both sides of the conflict served disguised as men. In 1881, the nurse Clara Barton established the American Red Cross.
Barton had worked for ten years to create an organization that would provide peacetime disaster relief and wartime assistance. The Red Cross is still a very prominent organization that serves as an important partner with today’s military. As a result of thousands of U.S. soldiers affected by typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever during the Spanish-American War of 1898, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee suggested to the Army’s surgeon general that qualified nurses be contracted to serve the Army. By the war’s end, over 1,500 nurses had been contracted out to Army hospitals in the U.S. and abroad; some
lost their lives. 

As a result, Dr. McGee was appointed as acting assistant surgeon general, the first woman to ever hold that position. She was later commissioned by the Army to write legislation that would create a permanent corps of nurses. This was groundbreaking for women in the military, and in 1901, the Army Nurse Corps was established. Women have gone on to be trailblazers in our nation’s armed forces where they serve with dignity, respect, honor and a strong sense of duty for their country. During World War I thousands of women served as nurses; more than 400 died in the line of duty. In 1920, the Army Reorganization Act granted military nurses the status of officers with “relative rank” from second lieutenant to major but did not grant them full rights and privileges. During World War II over 100,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and over 86,000 as Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). 

Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) were organized and flew as civil service pilots. Many of these women were captured by the Japanese and held as Prisoners of War (POWs). Before World War II ended, women had served in a variety of positions to include intelligence, medicine, supply, communications, etc. The idea of women serving spread to other branches of service. In 1942, the Coast Guard created its Women’s Reserve known as SPARS incorporating the “Semper Paratus – Always Ready” motto. 

A year later, the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, allowing women to serve. As America demobilized, all but a small number of servicewomen were mustered out. The U.S., now a world power, was forced to keep the largest peacetime military in its history. Women have a rich history of both struggle and service in America. Breaking ground in new positions, they were not always welcomed or congratulated for their efforts. When wars and conflicts were over, many were forced to go back home or into the low-paying positions they held before serving. It took tremendous courage and dedication to be a trailblazer, and it still does. 

The next war, the Korean War of the 50s, would call on women again, to serve, and women also served in Vietnam, some losing their lives in both conflicts. Since these wars, women have gone on to achieve a great number of firsts in our nation’s military. For example, women have graduated from service academies where they once were not accepted. Women have become military chaplains, pilots, military police, and commanders of major military installations. 

Women have worked hard to achieve fair and equal benefits in the military. Today more combat positions are open to women. Women have served their countries and even paid the ultimate price, made the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives for freedom. In 2004, by year’s end, 19 female soldiers had been killed during the war in Iraq, the most servicewomen to die as a result of hostile action in any war in which the nation participated.

In 2005, the first woman in history was awarded the Silver Star for combat action. History was made in 2008 when the U. S. Army promoted a woman to the rank of four-star general. During Women’s History Month, let’s pay tribute to women in history who have paved the way for the success of the entire nation, women who have served in their families, their communities and in their professions. Women known and unknown have played vital roles in the establishment and continuation of the life we now know. Moreover, let’s salute and pay tribute to those women who have served our nation heroically and unselfishly, those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice and continue daily to pay it forward in the name of freedom.

(published in STARS & STRIPES KOREA, Okinawa, Guam, Kanto, February 28, 2013)

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