There are more than two centuries of history regarding the American Female in service to her country. It begins with Loretta Walsh, who, on March 21, 1917, became America’s first official enlisted woman in any service when she joined the Navy amid World War I.
Even before Loretta Walsh, women have served our armed forces as nurses, seamstresses, and cooks for troops in camps as far back as the Revolutionary War. Some women are also reported to have entered Revolutionary War combat disguised as men. It wasn’t until World War II that all branches of the military enlisted women into their ranks to fill the many non-combat roles required as more than 16 million Americans stepped up to serve the front lines.
In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, allowing women to serve as full-time, permanent members of all branches of the Armed Forces. There were caveats to this law that restricted the number of women who could serve to only 2% of each branch, limiting the ability of women to achieve officer rank, enforcing automatic discharges of pregnant soldiers, and prohibiting women from commanding men or serving in combat positions.
Female service members have made continued strides over the century, but only in the face of significant challenges. Many of which continue to go unspoken, unresolved, and unrecognized.
In the next few editions of Veterans Voices, we will share our conversations with women who were active members of our armed services across the 20th and 21st centuries. We asked them to share the challenges they have faced and their ideas on improving inclusion, representation, and appreciation for our mighty female forces. This month we begin our series with Anna’s story.
Anna 1977 – 1981
Air Force, Navy Reserves, Army Reserves, Army
I began my military career in the Air Force in 1977 and was stationed at MacDill AFB for four years. I lived on base amongst other female service members on the third floor of the barracks, which was for females only.
That didn’t stop this one guy who would hang around the female barracks at night, go into the female showers, and menace everyone. He attacked me one dreadful night, and the security police didn’t want to take my report. They were insinuating that I brought it on, asking me, “What were you wearing?” and “What’s the matter, you don’t like being touched?”.
My First Sergeant was furious and ultimately assisted me in filing a report that eventually banned the attacker from the base. But, there were other incidents during my time in the Air Force; one offender was my Master Sergeant.
Later, while serving in the Army and stationed in Bosnia, where I met my second husband, a Marine, I was sexually harassed. Again, they refused to take my report, requiring my then-husband to get involved and force the issue. This time, it ended up in Article 15 for the offender. Why did getting anyone to pay attention require a man to be involved in the complaint?
Despite these events, my experience in the Army wasn’t all bad. To enter Army service, I was required to take basic training. I was 37 at the time. I was part of the first flight of females to wear men’s fatigues. Just a week before, the women were still in skirts. It was a good experience because, alongside the younger Soldiers, we all worked as a team. When I got my Sergeant rank back and was again in charge of people, I tried to be a good leader, be fair, and do a good job. But there were always those who only saw me as a woman and couldn’t offer respect.
I was ultimately medically discharged due to a serious back injury and elbow injuries resulting in several operations. I left the military with 10% disability.
After my service and over the years, I struggled to maintain relationships. I would find myself in situations that would take me back to dark places. At my home in Massachusetts, you had to go down a long hallway with cement walls and no windows to get to the bathroom. I couldn’t go down there by myself. It reminded me of the barracks.
It wasn’t until 2013 that I got signed up at the VA and had a good female doctor who asked me about my military experiences. That was the first time I talked about my sexual trauma in over thirty-five years. I was assigned a female therapist and saw her weekly for a while. I didn’t realize I had been having anxiety attacks. I never understood why I always had the urge to run. In my civilian life, I would catch myself running to the bathroom at work in tears. I just never connected everything. The VA determined that I suffered from PTSD, and my disability rating was adjusted.
Fast forward to a recent experience. I was in the emergency room and had been waiting for many hours. There was another veteran there waiting also and he could tell I was in much pain. When they called his name, he said, “You know what? Give my slot to her. She’s in more pain than me.” I was very grateful.
Other male veterans show much more respect now than when we were on active duty. It could be because we no longer wear the uniform and live by rank. We aren’t competing anymore.
The military has come a long way for female service members, but we will always be a minority. In civilian life, seeing more veteran support groups centered around female veterans would be excellent. I would even reconsider organizations like the American Legion and DAV if more females were involved in those groups.
Next month we will continue our series with Elaine’s experiences serving in the Air Force between 1984 and 1990.
“… As female veterans, we must stand up and say, “Hey! I was there too!” Institutions like the American Legion and the VFW won’t change if women don’t make the change.” – Elaine