Women Veterans


Women Veterans - A Proud Heritage

From the days of the American Revolution to the conflict in the Persian Gulf and today, throughout the World, American women have and are honorably serving in defense of our Nation. In times of war and peace, women have willingly responded to their country's call. Their contributions are characterized by individual and collective acts of self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and personal heroism. Yet, how many of us are familiar with their contributions, adversities and struggles? How many of us are aware that women were present on the battlefields of the Great War, in the mud at Anzio and at the fall of Bataan? Women served in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia and other places our Armed Forces have gone.

Not all-military service takes place in the arena of war; however, a majority of military personnel both men and women, has performed military service during peacetime. Although their role is often perceived as less glamorous than those who are associated with wartime service, their contribution is no less important. Unfortunately, women who have served in the military are rarely acknowledged in paintings, statues and memorials commemorating America's military history and the word "veteran" is rarely associated with women.

The 1980 Census was the first to ask American women if they had served in the Armed Forces... and more than 1.2 million said, "Yes." These women represented 4.6% of the veteran population, more than half of whom served during a period of war.

So, why is it that women veterans are invisible? Why is their military service and sometime heroic actions seldom recognized or honored? It is, in large part, because of preconceived social stereotypes and cultural mores. Throughout history, military service has been recognized as a synonym for "combat or war." And "war" has always been considered as a masculine activity. Yet, if we seriously looked at the characteristics so valued in war: steady nerves, sound judgment, courage, tenacity, patriotism and sacrifice, we will find that they are traits found and exhibited by members of both sexes. A review of the history of women in the military demonstrates this fact very clearly.

Although not officially recognized as members of the Armed Forces until 1901, the involvement of women in military-related activities and matters in this country dates back at least to the Revolutionary War. It was then that Mary Hayes McCauly earned her nickname, Molly Pitcher, by carrying water in a grog to her husband and other American artillerymen. Her fame however, is credited to when her husband collapsed in battle and she immediately took his place firing a cannon until the Battle was over. Mad Ann Bailey, an expert shot and skilled horsewoman, served as a scout, spy and messenger and Sarah Fulton delivered dispatches through enemy lines. Deborah Sampson, disguised as a man, enlisted in the Revolutionary Army and fought in several engagements for three years. Injured twice, she treated her own wounds to avoid detection, but after being rendered unconscious and near death by a musket ball, the treating doctor discovered her true identity and she was quietly discharged from the Army. Like the women who would follow her, Deborah Sampson served bravely and returned home quietly. Little did she know that she was setting a standard of behavior that would persist for close to two centuries.

During the Civil War, women like Clara Barton contributed their energy and demonstrated their commitment to country and honor on both sides of the war effort. Although most women served as cooks and nurses, other women became scouts and spies in their effort to support their side.

Clara Barton contributed significantly to the establishment of a level of care for wounded soldiers that paralleled the contributions of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. She provided this care at some of the most famous battles of the Civil War. Including Second Bull Run, Antitiem and Fredericksburg. She was as committed to healing their spirits as she was to healing their bodies. After the War, Clara Barton established the first National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, and went on to found the American Red Cross.

Sarah Edmonds, in disguise, served as a male nurse, but later became a spy in the Union's secret service. A master of disguise, she was able to pass as a man or woman, as black or white and crossed Confederate lines on numerous occasions. Other women heroes of the Civil War included Dr. Mary Walker, who gave up her medical practice to go with the Union Army as a nurse because women could not be Doctors. She did not need to be "labeled" a doctor to provide the medical help she knew her countrymen needed. She later volunteered to be a spy was captured by the Confederacy and held prisoner for four months. Dr. Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her actions, although it was later rescinded. She refused to return the medal and wore it proudly until her death. In 1976, the U.S. Congress restored this honor and Dr. Mary Walker became the only woman in our Nation's history to be awarded the highest military award for Valor in War.

In 1898, during the Spanish American War, 1,500 nurses, under civilian contract, provided outstanding care in the field and on what may have been the first hospital ship, the Relief. In volunteering to be bitten by an infected mosquito, she was the last human subject to be used in these experiments and the only one to die. Among them was a young woman by the name of Clara Maas who assisted with the research into yellow fever transmission. These studies paved the way to the development of a vaccine that latter saved thousands of lives.

The outstanding care provided by the nurses during the Spanish American War resulted in the formulation of the Army Nurse Corp in 1901, followed by the Navy Nurse Corp in 1908. Many of these women saw duty during World War I, served close to the front lines and were wounded or gassed. World War I also saw women serving outside the Nurse Corp for the first time. Volunteers were recruited to assume some of the clerical duties routinely done by men. This call for volunteers resulted in over 12,000 volunteers for the Navy and others for the Marines. 10,000 of these women were assigned overseas. They had no rank, no benefits and no entitlements. Still, they volunteered, they served and at the end of the War, when they were no longer needed, they returned quietly to civilian life.

Women's role in the military faded once again and although the Army and Navy Nurse Corps continued to exist, women who served still did not receive the rank, pay or benefits as the men did. Then, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

As America confronted the need to mobilize all of its resources for war, once again the need for women in the military became apparent and the Women's Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) was established. Within a year, the WAACs would be fully incorporated into the Army and become the Women's Army Corp with its members receiving rank, pay and appropriate benefits. Women served throughout the theaters of war-operation. As secretaries, interpreters, intelligence operatives they willingly served wherever they were assigned. Nurses once again were on or near the battles and front lines. Their dedicated service and untold sacrifices were present at Anzio, Normandy, in France, Germany and in the South Pacific.

Over 200 military nurses were killed by hostile fire, including 6 Army Nurses who remain buried at the beachhead on Anzio. Several hundred received military decorations for heroism and bravery, including the Silver Star and Bronze Star,

In a seldom-told story of heroism, 81 military women remained on the islands of Bataan and Corregidor to care for the wounded during the fall of the Philippines. Captured by the Japanese, they were to spend 37 months in prisoner of war camps. During captivity, they spent untold hours performing heroic deeds that ultimately resulted in many lives being saved.

No story of women's military service during Wold War II would be complete without acknowledging the 900 women who voluntarily joined the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS). Organized in 1942, at the request of General Hap Arnold, these women logged more than 60 million air miles. They served as flight instructors for men; ferried airplanes from the US to Europe, including high-speed fighters, bombers and P-47 thunderbolts and also had the dubious privilege of towing targets for male fighter pilots so that they could practice on a moving object while using live ammunition. In an unbelievable example of discrimination based on gender, these women received no support from the military, except for their pay, and were not even eligible for medical care or insurance in the case of an on the job injury. Thirty-eight WASPS were killed in airplane crashes and many more injured, but these women received no benefits and, upon their death, could not have a US flag draped over their casket. In 1977, the Us Congress granted the surviving WASPS veteran status.

The Korean War, though often overlooked in history, once again saw women serving, both in the hospitals and in support roles. The development of the Air Evacuation System for combat casualties and the expansion of the roles of the flight nurse were pioneered during Korea and ultimately this system would make a significant difference in the casualty care system during Vietnam.

Vietnam was our Country's longest war. The perception that women, if there at all, were assigned to "safe" places demonstrates our ignorance of women's contributions once again. From the rice paddies in the Delta to the jungles of the DMZ, women served in hospitals, MASH units and support areas across the country. Eight women were killed in action. Towns such as Pleiku, Da Nang, Chu Lai and Phu Bai became and remain as much a part of the memories and stories of the women who served in Vietnam as they are of the men that served with them. So were the experiences of death, disease and disillusionment. Vietnam redefined war; there were no front lines. No safe places

The Vietnam War, exposure to enemy fire, primitive living conditions and streams of casualties took an emotional toll on both men and women alike.

The close proximity of the hospitals and the staff doctors and nurses to the physical location of the battle zones contributed to and resulted in record numbers of lives saved. In Vietnam, less than two-percent of treated casualties died from their wounds.

The Vietnam War changed many things in this Country, but perhaps the organization it most changed was the US Military. The advent of the all-volunteer Army and the increasing demand for technologically skilled soldiers, the feminist movement and the successful service of women, contributed to the change of the military structure of the early 1970's. It became apparent that women were not just on active duty serving in insignificant supporting roles during wartime, their ongoing contributions were recognized as essential. By 1991, and the War in the Persian Gulf, over 11 percent of the active duty military and 13 percent of the reserve forces were women.

But change was still underway. Although women had participated in the invasion of Grenada, and in "Operation Just Cause" in Panama, they did not receive the public and media attention they did during "Operation Desert Storm." The War in the Persian Gulf was a true tuning point for women in the military. For the first time, they were called upon to demonstrate their effectiveness and serve in positions previously reserved for men. Positions such as: manning patriot missile placements, flying helicopters on reconnaissance and search and rescue missions and driving convoys over the desert close to enemy positions. Women were called upon to do all of these jobs and more. Women were exposed to the same dangers as men. Close to 35,000 women served in the Persian Gulf, and they served well. The success of their service can probably be best measured by the fact that many new positions and career specialties have been opened to women in recent years.

The history of women in the military is a history of love of country, service, commitment, dedication and courage and it includes sacrifices that have largely gone unrecognized. But perhaps, that is changing.

On Veterans Day in 1993, a bronze statue of three women and a wounded soldier was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, DC. This statue, in close proximity to the Vietnam Wall, was placed there in honor of the 265,000 women who served during the Vietnam era. It was a historic moment in time; for it was the first time our country has bestowed National recognition upon women who answered their country's call.

Then in October 1997, The Women in Service to America's Memorial was officially dedicated at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. This grand and gracious memorial was 11 years in the making and recognizes the honorable military service of women throughout history.

From the Revolutionary War to the present, America*s women veterans have been invisible heroines. They are true examples for future generations that securing our country*s liberty and freedom are everyone's responsibility. As a Nation, we must pay tribute to the American women; our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters, aunts and friends, who have served their country through military service; for indeed theirs is a proud and honorable heritage. They must be recognized for their contributions to the freedoms we so enjoy today.


Joan A. Furey

Director Center for Women Veterans

May 1995 - May 2001