Military Women Pioneering the Future
Ms. Ellen Embrey
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Force Health Protection and Readiness
March 28, 2003
In this special month set aside to honor women's history, we need to
look to our past to see clearly into our future. Our strength and our
resolve come from a rich heritage, so it is appropriate that we reflect
on the accomplishments of the past to see where the future may lead.
In particular, it is the women who have served our country in the military
who have had a major impact in setting the course for the women of today
and tomorrow. It is most appropriate today for us to remember what they
did, and to recognize their deeds.
These very special people include all the women who are serving, and
who ever served in the defense of our nation. From the American Revolution
to the present, the women in our military have a proud heritage of always
moving ahead, of being pioneers. Let's take a brief walk through history
- or in this case, "herstory."
During the American Revolution, several women who were literally pioneers
were also pioneering the battlefield. Molly Pitcher, whose real name was
Mary Hayes McCauly, earned her nickname by carrying water and grog to
her husband and other American artillerymen of the Revolution. She earned
her fame, however, at New Jersey's Battle of Monmouth on
June 28, 1778. When her husband collapsed in battle, she immediately took
his place, firing the cannon until the battle was over. And there were
others during the American Revolution:
There was Margaret Corbin who, like Molly Pitcher, followed and helped
her husband from camp to camp. And she, like Molly, took her husband's
place when he fell in battle - at Fort Washington, New York. There was
"Mad" Ann Bailey, an expert shot and a skilled horsewoman, who
served as a scout, spy, and messenger. There was Sarah Fulton who delivered
dispatches through enemy lines. There was also Deborah Sampson, disguised
as a man, enlisted and served for three years in the Revolutionary army.
She was injured twice, the second time by a musket ball deep in her thigh.
She treated her own wounds to avoid detection. But finally, when she fell
unconscious and was near death, a doctor treating her for "malignant
fever" discovered she was a woman. Quietly discharged from the army,
she later was awarded a disability bonus and a pension of four dollars
a month. These women, when needed, were there for their nation.
In the years following the Revolution, women AND men were pioneers, working
to settle the frontier. When part of a military family, they traveled
and lived at various posts, camps and stations throughout our nation.
They suffered the same privations and endured the same hardships as their
soldier husbands. And they too served.
When our united nation divided in 1861, so too did the women of our nation.
They served in the forces of both the Confederacy and the Union, mostly
in traditional roles such as cook and nurse. But others served as scouts
and spies. As in the Revolution, some women enlisted using an alias. One
such soldier was Sarah Edmonds. She initially served as a male nurse,
but later became a spy in the secret service of the Union. Edmonds was
a master of disguise. Able to pass as a man or woman - black or white
- she infiltrated Confederate lines eleven times in 1862 and 1863.
Dr. Mary Walker was a true pioneer - the first woman doctor in the U.S.
Army and the only woman ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor. At first
word of the Civil War, she requested a commission. It was denied her.
While appealing her case through bureaucratic channels, she served as
a volunteer in a hospital established at the U.S. Patent Office. Later
she followed the battles, working in the surgeon's tent at Manassas and
Fredericksburg, Virginia - still a volunteer, still unpaid for her services.
She continued her volunteer service until 1863, when she was ordered to
serve with the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment. She was to replace a surgeon
- a man, of course - killed in the battle of Chickamauga. Although her
medical superiors questioned her credentials and competency, she stayed
with the unit, riding daily by horseback through the picket lines to attend
to the sick - soldier and civilian alike - around the war-ravaged Chattanooga.
It was while performing this service, crossing the picket lines, that
she was captured by the Confederates in April of 1864. She remained a
prisoner of war for four months, then gained her freedom in a prisoner
exchange. Researcher Jean Gillette says this about her: "It was always
a source of pride to (Dr. Walker) that she was exchanged ... 'man for
man.' " After being released, Dr. Walker received the grand sum of
$436.36 for her work and time in captivity. Her service before 1863 she
had given as an unpaid civilian volunteer! And we remember.
Gradually, thanks to these pioneers, the role of women in the military
began to change. In 1901, the Army Nurse Corps was established. Seven
years later, in 1908, the Navy Nurse Corps was established. By the end
of World War One, the number of women who had served in these two corps,
and in the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard, was 34,000.
America first began recruiting its women for military service during
World War One. The first to enlist were Navy yeomen, in March 1917. The
first women Marine Reservists enlisted in August 1918; there were 305
of them. There were also a few Coast Guard yeomen, including the Baker
twins, Genevieve and Lucille, who enlisted in 1918. These women served
mostly as clerks, translators and radio electricians.
In 1917, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary
Forces, requested bilingual enlisted women to serve on the front lines
as telephone operators. But the law at that time allowed only women to
join the Army as nurses. The Army found a way to bypass the law: 223 civilian
women volunteered to serve in England and France under contract with the
Army's Signal Corps, beginning in March 1918. These civilian volunteers
were known as the "hello girls."
Of the others who volunteered for military service, about 10,000 were
assigned "over there" - overseas, in Europe. They had no rank,
no benefits, and no entitlements. Still, they volunteered. They served.
Then, at war's end, when they were no longer needed, they returned quietly
to civilian life. Forgotten? No. Because today, we remember.
As the specter of another world war loomed on the horizon, the role of
women in the military continued to change. The War Department now considered
women for "quasi-military operations." In May 1942, the Women's
Army Auxiliary Corps was established - soon to become the Women's Army
Corps, whose members were called Wacs. Two months later the Navy founded
the WAVES - Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. In November
of that same year - 1942 - the Coast Guard created the SPARs, an acronym
deriving from the Coast Guard motto: Semper Paratus - Always Ready. The
Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Women's Reserve, but gave its
members no nickname or abbreviation; women in the Marine Corps were simply
called Women Marines. The last organization established for women fell
under the U.S. Civil Service. It was the Women's Airforce Service Pilots,
and its members were known as "Wasps" and they were considered
The War Department had hoped to recruit 500,000 women. By the end of the
war, 350,000 women had served in the military. Only about 280,000 of them,
however, remained in service. Of the 12 million U.S. service members at
the end of June 1945, women comprised 2.3 percent.
Once in the military, women had other obstacles to overcome: They couldn't
give orders to men, their ranks were different, and their pay was less.
Of the military services, only the Army allowed them to serve overseas,
and laws restricted the ranks of the directors and officers. Still, women
volunteered. Still, they served.
Ann Carl, a WASP pilot during World War Two, ferried gunnery-training
targets at Camp Davis, North Carolina, and later tested fighters and bombers
at Wright Field, Ohio. From an interview with USA Today, here are her
words: "We felt we were lucky to be doing what we were doing. We
would have done the whole thing free of charge. We would have paid to
do it!" she said.
Now, that's patriotism. She did it for her country; they all did it for
their country. Says historian Linda Grant De Pauw: "They were not
opening doors to women. They were in there to defeat the Nazis or the
And the women who served did so in a wide variety of specialties: transportation,
maintenance, intelligence, communications, aviation, administration, and
even training pilots and gunners. All were trained as non-combatants,
even though Wacs overseas often served in hazardous zones. Did you know
that about 1,500 Wacs assigned to London were exposed to nightly attacks
by buzz bombs? That 17 of those Wacs received the Purple Heart for injuries
received? Did you know that a platoon of WAC communications specialists
accompanied the advance headquarters party of General Mark Clark's V Corps
as it entered Italy? That for three to six months these Wacs were within
range and sound of enemy artillery?
Did you know that 16 nurses were killed in action during World War Two?
That 1,600 were decorated for meritorious service and bravery under fire?
That 66 Army nurses, captured during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines
in 1942, cared for sick inmates in the Santo Tomas civilian internment
camp until U.S. forces freed them in February 1945?
And did you know that nurses followed Allied forces ashore five days after
the first Allied landing at Anzio? That six nurses later were killed in
bombing attacks by the Germans?
Did you know of this tradition, this proud heritage of American women
in the military? I didn't. But now, I do know. And I will remember.
At war's end, nearly all women in military service returned to civilian
life. Nearly all, but not all! As in no previous post-war period, a small
nucleus of women was allowed to remain on active duty. By 1947, these
women numbered only 14,500 in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. They were
few in number, but still they served in the U.S. armed forces. And still
they wore the uniform of American military service.
Now the year is 1948, and military women cleared another hurdle: Congress
provided for regular and reserve status of women in the Army, the Navy,
the Marine Corps and the newly formed Air Force. Their numbers were limited
to 2 percent of the total force, and women were prohibited from rising
above the rank of lieutenant colonel or commander.
In 1950, American women in military service were trained and ready when
duty called them to Korea. In Pusan and Seoul, most women served as nurses,
but some served as stenographers, aides and interpreters. Within four
days after the first U.S. troops landed, Army nurses arrived at Pusan
to set up a hospital and care for the casualties. In all, about 540 women
served in Korea. And we remember.
"Herstory" continues during the Vietnam era. In March 1962,
the first WAC officer served in Vietnam. In all, nearly 11,000 women served
there, mostly as Army, Navy and Air Force nurses. According to researcher
June A. Willenz, more than three quarters of these women were exposed
to combat. They didn't just hear about war. They saw it. They felt it.
They lived it. And eight of them died in it. The names of those eight
now are etched on "The Wall" of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Those women, and others, were doubly honored when nation dedicated a memorial
to the women who served America in Vietnam. Diane Carlson Evans, founder
of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, wants "America to remember
that in the wrenching times of the Vietnam War, her daughters also answered
her call." Evans hopes that, like "The Wall," this memorial
will be a place of healing for those who served, and a chance for others
to say thank you.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, General Colin Powell, then chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State today, said: "I
realize for the first time that for male soldiers, that war came in intermittent
flashes of terror.... The nurses saw the bleakest, most terrifying face
of war. The mangled men, the endless sobs of wounded kids ... not just
now and then, but day after day, night after hellish night."
And like so many others who have witnessed the horrors of war, they too
need to heal. Says former Army nurse Edie McCoy Meeks, "I don't have
to recover from killing somebody. I have to recover because I couldn't
save anyone." For her, as she told USA Today, the memorial will help.
It "stands for the fact that we are different heroes," she said,
"but just as important as other heroes."
During the fundraising process, members of the memorial committee began
to find that the American public did hold their deeds as acts of heroism.
One letter from a small child contained two one-dollar bills. It said,
"This is all I have, but I want you to have it, because if it weren't
for you, my daddy wouldn't be here."
And so, they served. Despite the harsh realities, the remote locations,
the long hours, and the hardships endured, they served. Knowing how hard
it would be, would they do it again? Yes, absolutely! Many in fact did
- when their active and Reserve units were called to active duty during
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. And with them, we remember.
As these women served during the Vietnam era, their roles continued to
evolve. In 1967, Congress removed promotion restrictions, allowing women
to become general officers. The 2-percent restriction on the number of
Regular Army Wacs was also removed. Then in June 1973, the entire military
was significantly changed. No longer conscripted, the military became
an all-volunteer force. While this was a new concept for men, it wasn't
for women who served - they all had been volunteers from the outset. With
this change, the number of women in service began to grow. In 1974, Army
women were assigned into branches previously occupied by men, except for
Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery. And they were now promoted equally
with their men counterparts. And the role continued to change.
In 1975, by public law, women began to pioneer another new frontier -
the service academies. The following year, in 1976 - 200 years after Molly
Pitcher, Sarah Fulton and Margaret Corbin had served in the military -
it 119 women were the first to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West
Point; 81 entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis; and 157 entered
the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Before they graduated
in 1980, a separate corps for them was no longer needed. In the Army,
women had been assimilated effectively in training assignments, logistics
and administrative management. Members of the Women's Army Corps, both
officers and enlisted, had grown in number - from about 16,000, in 1972,
to 56,841, by September 30, 1978. Then, on October 20, 1978, the Women's
Army Corps was disestablished. The other services followed similar paths.
Military women now trained and served at locations throughout the world
- serving not as Wacs, Waves and Wafs, but as soldiers, sailors, airmen,
Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Side by side, as members of a well-trained
team, they served with their men counterparts.
Those who had doubted their capabilities were pleasantly surprised. This
evolution went largely unnoticed until October 1983, during Operation
Urgent Fury. Women MPs from Fort Bragg deployed with their units to Grenada.
Upon reaching their destination, however, they were recalled to the United
States; then, three days later, they returned. Their commander said the
initial decision to withdraw them wasn't the right one. "If there's
a battle," he said, "the women will stay and complete their
Six years later, in 1989, the question of whether women should serve
with their units wasn't even asked. Before the invasion of Panama, 620
women were already stationed there, and 170 more were sent. They continued
the proud tradition of those who'd gone before them. And we remember.
Who then could have imagined that a year later this all-volunteer force,
composed of men and women, would face its first large-scale challenge?
This force was, for the most part, untested. Could they do the job? Would
their equipment work? Could they withstand the harsh environment a continent
away? News magazines, cover after cover, examined the all-volunteer force
and placed special scrutiny on the women, then nearly 11 percent of the
entire force on active duty. Not only did women withstand the microscopic
scrutiny; they served professionally and withstood the blistering heat
of summer and the cold, windy, dust-filled desert winters. They were there
to deter war by being ready to wage it. And when Saddam Hussein failed
to comply with the United Nations deadline, they, with their units - their
comrades - crossed the line in the sand. About 3,800 Air Force women,
in units of both the active and reserve components, served in the desert.
When the air campaign began, they were there - serving in military airlift,
airlift terminal and cargo management, aerial refueling, communications,
intelligence, fire fighting, aeromedical evacuation and a wide variety
of support specialties. Women Air Force pilots flew and crewed strategic
transports, tactical transports, tankers, reconnaissance and aeromedical
airlift aircraft. When the ground war began, 26,000 Army women and 1,000
women Marines were there with their units. They served in a wide variety
of specialties, including military police, intelligence, communications
and civil affairs. They flew helicopters, drove trucks and operated the
Patriot missiles. One thousand Navy women were part of the campaign, as
well. They served on hospital ships, supply ships, repair ships, oilers
and ammunition ships. They flew helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft
and served in Navy construction battalions. In all, nearly 35,000 women
served. Fifteen of them died; four of them, all enlisted soldiers, were
killed in action. Two women, an Army truck driver and an Army flight surgeon,
were taken prisoner. But this you know. You saw them on television, in
magazines and newspapers. You welcomed them home, and you mourned with
those families whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and
mothers made the supreme sacrifice for our country. To all of them, you
were then a grateful nation. You recognized their professional commitment
and patriotism. By your actions you thanked them. You remembered.
A historic change in assignment policy occurred in 1993 when combat aviation
specialties and assignments on Navy combat ships were opened to women.
Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin explained the change. He said: "We
know from experience that women can fly our high-performance fighter aircraft.
We know from experience that they can perform well in assignments at sea.
And we know from Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield that women
can stand up to the most demanding environments."
Between the first Gulf War and today, military women continued to push
the boundaries, pioneering new frontiers. According to the Defense Manpower
Data Center, more than 1,000 women participated in U.S. military operations
in Somalia between 1992 and 1994.
In 1995 more than 1,200 women were deployed to Haiti for peacekeeping
To date, more than 5,000 women have served in the peacekeeping operations
And less than two months ago, military women pioneered previously uncharted
area on a mission in the skies over Afghanistan. On Jan. 31, a KC-135
Stratotanker took off from Ganci Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, carrying more than
180,000 pounds of fuel. It was also carrying the first all-female crew
to fly an air refueling mission into Afghanistan from Ganci. I can't give
you their names, for reasons of operational security, but the two pilots,
navigator, and boom operator have been deployed there from the 99th Air
Refueling Squadron since Dec. 9. Between the four of them, they have almost
4,000 flying hours in the KC-135, in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar,
Iceland and Thailand. They are just four of the 1,800 women supporting
Operation Enduring Freedom.
Today the legacy of these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast
Guardsmen lives on. Their proud tradition doesn't end here. It lives on.
U.S. law does still bar women from ground combat. Nonetheless, military
women today are moving out to openly explore the forward frontier of the
combat zone more fully than ever.
In the Christian Science Monitor I read about Specialist Danielle Barnaba
who drives a five-ton delivery truck out in the desert, hauling everything
from engine parts to toothpaste on her daily supply runs to Army combat
brigades. She's one of the soldiers of the 703rd Main Support Battalion,
which runs the lifeline for the Third Infantry Division and at 26, she's
driving a 10-wheeler that might be older than she is.
The Washington Post wrote about Army chief warrant officer Charisma Henzie,
who spent her 26th birthday on the current deployment. Henzie flies CH-47
Chinook helicopters, the big haulers that look like green school buses
with rotors front and back. Chinooks are cargo and troop helicopters that
often fly to front-line positions. Machine-gunners ride on both sides
and at the tail. Right now she might be ferrying soldiers into battle,
dropping reconnaissance teams behind enemy lines or zipping into Iraqi
territory to refuel Apache attack helicopters.
Warrant Officer Laquitta Joseph was featured in the Wall Street Journal.
Ms. Joseph is responsible for making sure the equipment works in her unit
- the 317th engineering battalion of the third brigade combat team of
the Army's Third Infantry Division. And when combat engineers say "equipment"
they mean minefield-clearing machines, 14-ton bridge-building contraptions
and armored personnel carriers. She's traveling right behind those front-line
combat engineers who clear minefields and build, or blow up, bridges.
In a sense, that makes Ms Joseph one of the most "forward" women
in the Iraqi Theater. Because when something breaks down she goes to the
front line to find the problem and figure out how to fix it.
I also want to mention Chief Warrant Officer 4 Concetta Hassan, the Chinook
helicopter pilot with B Company, 159th Aviation Regiment. She's the 60-year-old
grandmother that USA Today wrote about a few days ago. Ms. Hassan has
served her country in uniform since 1975. Six years into her Army career,
she applied for flight school and made it. She flew in Honduras, she flew
in Korea, and now she's flying in current operations for Central Command.
She says that when women join the military, this is what she tries to
impart to them. "The only thing stopping you is you.... There's no
goal that you can't reach."
I don't want you to think that the only fighting women today are wearing
Army green. A recent story in the Washington Post reported that even now,
years after the first woman joined the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln,
women are gaining in numbers but are still very much a minority in a male-dominated
environment. For example, when the ship store got a rare box of small
Hanes T-shirts, women snapped them up. And women's restrooms on the ship
are hard to find. The Lincoln is one of the Navy's largest aircraft carriers,
so even though women make up only about 10 percent of her crew, that still
means more than 500 female sailors going into harm's way with their male
Well, that's the state of military women in the past and in the present.
Where will the future lead? Perhaps the future female pioneers will be
led by women like Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins. She's the
pilot who was named the first female space shuttle commander. According
to NASA, Lt. Col. Collins is one of 27 women out of 229 people who have
flown in the history of the space shuttle program. Collins became the
first woman to pilot a space shuttle when she flew aboard a mission in
February 1995 - the first flight of the new joint Russian-American space
Pioneering military women have pushed the boundaries since this country
was formed, continually revising the role of women in our society. What
do those serving think of these changes? Says one Army aviator, "I
knew it would happen -- not by revolution, but by evolution." Says
another: "I am pleased with these changes, and I'm proud of those
who served so well before I joined. But more than anything, I want to
be regarded not as a woman soldier, but as a soldier." A soldier
first, because the patriotic, selfless service - of those who served before,
those who now serve, and those who will serve in the future - knows no
gender. When we think of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and
Coast Guardsmen, we must remember the young women who dedicate their time,
talents and - yes, their very lives - to protecting our nation. By doing
so, they are pioneering the path to the future. And we will remember.