Do you know why we celebrate Women Veterans Day? This day of recognition isn’t just about honoring women who have served our country. In fact, its roots are much deeper.
This month, on June 12, we will honor the day that President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948. This act officially granted women the right to serve actively and permanently in the U.S. Armed Forces. It wasn’t until 70 years later, on June 12, 2018, that the first Women Veterans Day was established and honored.
Now recognized by 21 states and U.S. territories, Women Veterans Day honors the persistence and dedication of the women who defy convention, break barriers, and serve the mission. On June 12, 2023, the 75th anniversary of President Truman’s barrier-breaking signature, we honor the women whose courage and example no doubt guided his pen.
A Timeline of Women Veterans
History makes one thing clear: Women have never shied from standing up, standing tall, and serving our nation bravely. As far back as the Revolutionary War, women answered the call to serve.
The American Revolution
During the Revolutionary War, many women were known as “campfollowers,” who followed their warfighting husbands’ units and maintained camps, prepared food, mended supplies, and nursed the wounded. One such woman went above and beyond, becoming somewhat of a legend for her service to the military: “Molly Pitcher.” Her true identity is hard to pinpoint, but most believe she was Mary Hays.
She ran into harm’s way to bring water to her husband and other soldiers in battle – only to take over a cannon and join the fight when her husband was injured at the Battle of Monmouth. She fired the cannon until the Battle ended, narrowly escaping death and earning accolades from General George Washington.
The Civil War
In the Civil War, women were storied to disguise themselves as men and fight in battle. Others served the immense need for nurses, which had been a role typically reserved for men. Georgeanna Woolsey became one of the first 100 women to join the Army’s volunteer nursing staff, which was formed by the Woman’s Central Relief Association.
Woolsey had no prior medical training, but quickly learned the skills she’d need to provide medical care for wounded soldiers. Her letters indicate that she was initially pleased with the work, but was soon frustrated by the lack of respect and acknowledgement from the doctors they assisted. Still, after such close “contact with terror,” Woolsey reflected on the enormous challenge she and fellow nurses had to triage and treat severely wounded soldiers.
World War I
World War I was the first time women served an active, dedicated role in military service. An estimated 12,000 women enlisted in the Navy as Yeoman, filling such essential roles as radio operators, mechanics, telephone operators, translators, and munition workers. Plus, over 20,000 women became part of the Army Nurse Corps. Serving both at home and overseas near the front lines, nurses saved thousands of soldiers’ lives.
One of the first woman anesthetists in the American Expeditionary Forces, Sophie Gran, reported being bombed during a procedure. She used metal trays to cover the heads of her patient and herself, instead of hitting the floor, so that she could continue monitoring her patient under anesthesia. While she said that she wouldn’t describe her actions as brave, she clearly demonstrated that her mission was at the forefront of her mind.
World War II
World War II saw nearly 350,000 women in uniform. Joining units such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps, women performed a variety of critical duties – some very close to the front.
In fact, women from the Army Nurse Corps were killed by enemy fire, and 68 women were captured and imprisoned in the Philippines. Over 1,600 nurses were honored for bravery under fire and meritorious service. Over 560 WACs won combat decorations.
The legendary 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, led by Maj. Charity Adams, deployed to England and then to France to organize and distribute three years of backlogged mail. Officials thought it would take over 6 months to complete the task, but Adams’ team finished in an astonishing three months. Before Adams was discharged from the military in 1946, she achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
The Korean War
After the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was signed, and the Korean War broke out, women began serving on active duty. In fact, more than 120,000 women became Korean War Veterans. They served largely as nurses and medical specialists in Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH). Many more served as engineers, police, parachute riggers, and pharmacists.
Hazel Raines, who was the first woman in Georgia to earn her pilot’s license, had already served valiantly in World War II. Later, she earned another spot in history as first female reserve pilot to be called into active duty during the Korean War. Hazel died in 1956 with a staggering 6,400 flight hours and twenty years’ experience as a pilot.
The Vietnam War
In Vietnam, over 260,000 women served in the military, with about 11,000 deployed to Vietnam itself. Many performed duties in air traffic control, administrative work, and intelligence, both at home and overseas. Many more were nurses, who were often located in harm’s way.
Of the nurses who made the ultimate sacrifice, Captain Mary Klinker was the last to lose her life during the conflict. A flight nurse with the 22nd Aircraft Squadron at Clark Air Base, Klinker volunteered to participate in a humanitarian effort to rescue orphans from Vietnam, known as Operation Babylift.
Sadly, the aircraft upon which she and others flew malfunctioned and was forced to make an emergency landing. The landing left the plane in pieces, and Klinker, along with 138 others, died. After her death, Klinker was awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal.
The Gulf War
While they were restricted to non-combat roles, over 40,000 women deployed on active duty to the Persian Gulf. This by no means indicates that women service members’ roles were “safe,” or out of harm’s way. As pilots of helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft, flight engineers, nurses, military police officers, logistics coordinators and more, women’s roles in military service were more varied than ever.
And many women made historical milestones. One such woman was Capt. Rosemary Mariner. A Naval aviator, Mariner was one of the Navy’s first female tactical jet pilots and first woman to command an operational naval aviation squadron during Operation Desert Storm.
Lt. Phoebe Jeter also joined the ranks of “firsts” during this time. In 1991, she led a Patriot missile control team of fifteen men. Serving under extreme pressure, she identified incoming enemy Scud missiles and gave orders to destroy them. She became known as the “first female Scudbuster,” and she was the first woman in her battalion to earn an Army Commendation Medal.
Post-9/11 and Today’s Women Veterans
The attacks of September 11, 2001, ushered in a two-decades-long era of America at war. During that time, more than 345,000 women deployed in service to our nation. They continued to break barriers, become “firsts,” and sacrifice for our country.
The first Black female fighter pilot, the first woman to fly the F-22, the first woman to become a 4-star General, the first woman to graduate Army Ranger school — all of these “firsts” marked the post-9/11 era of Women Veterans.
These women did what few others have ever attempted, and forged a path so that others could follow. Much of the time, these firsts were achieved despite extreme pressures, expectations, and challenges unique to the experience of Women Veterans.
Celebrate Women Veterans Day
This month, on the 75th Anniversary of the signing of Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, we celebrate Women Veterans Day not just to honor women who have served, but to recognize the rich history and impactful roles that women have served over time – despite nearly impossible barriers.
We honor not simply the establishment of a pioneering Act, but also the pioneering women who made that Act possible.
Because of these women, and because of Women Veterans every day, more doors are open to the women who follow.
Women Veterans, we salute you!