Women making Military History
March is National Women’s History Month and this year’s theme is, “weaving the stories of women’s lives.” In recent years, barriers have been breached and swept aside for women to advance in today’s military, opening new opportunities in both combat as well as commands.
With those opportunities come more vibrant yarns to weave into the tapestry of our nation’s collective story. Whether their advances are great or small, women in all branches of service today are not only benefiting from the advancements of their predecessors – they are making history themselves.
It is with this in mind that we’ve sewn together a few of the myriads of threads of women’s stories – past, present and poised for the future – who comprise the cloth of America’s armed forces. As the National Women’s History Project states:
“Accounts of the lives of individual women are critically important because they reveal exceptionally strong role models who share a more expansive vision of what a woman can do. The stories of women’s lives, and the choices they made, encourage girls and young women to think larger and bolder, and give boys and men a fuller understanding of the female experience. Knowing women’s achievements challenges stereotypes and upends social assumptions about who women are and what women can accomplish today. (It also) inspires today’s generations and opens the way to the future.”
We offer these few brief stories as salute to the women of today and tomorrow, as well as those in the past, who serve and have served their country in the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Reserve and Guard.
The Corps – How I got here
By Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness, U.S. Marine Corps
Early in her career, Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness was told she couldn’t carry the symbols of her unit and country because she was female. Maness has since broken new ground throughout her career by being the first woman Marine to serve in different capabilities and billets. She is currently assigned to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Eastern Recruiting Region. Here are fragments of Maness’ 27 years of service as told to combat correspondent Sgt. Melissa Karnath.
I graduated recruit training in a skirt. We weren’t issued slacks. Dad had already retired by the time I joined in 1987. He showed up at the emblem ceremony and gave me his eagle, globe, and anchor.
I was 24 years old and married to a Marine when I went to boot camp. I was the dependent wife out there with two kids and a gunnery sergeant husband. When my husband came to boot camp on family day, he shows up and he’s in uniform and my senior drill instructor was like, “Excuse me, who are you?”
Imagine 1988, Lance Cpl. Maness checks into the command, married to a gunnery sergeant. What do you think everybody thought about me?
I was a lance corporal in H&S Battalion, in charge of another lance corporal and a PFC. I was older than them. I felt like their mom almost.
Keep going above your pay grade to learn what the next step is going to be about … If you’re not fighting and being competitive in your job, you’re going to be asked to leave.
“I want to try out for the ceremonial platoon, Gunny.” He’s sitting at his desk smoking a cigarette. He took a drag off of it, blew the smoke in my face and said to me, “Maness, you’re female. You’re never going to be on my color guard.”
… “Gunny, how come I can’t be on this color guard? Because I’m female? Is that right?” And he said hell yeah; get out of my office. “Aye aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” So I went out of his office, right upstairs, asked my staff NCO to help me with an appeal.
The institution cannot be strong at the top if we don’t have a strong foundation at the bottom.
When that time comes and you finally have the honor of training another Marine, don’t waste one minute of your time. Embrace the opportunity while contemplating that every Marine you train is someone’s son, daughter, nephew, niece or grandchild …. take care of them as if they were your own.
Having an active duty spouse is never as you would expect. Those are sacrifices that you make. It’s just the way it is. If you come in with the expectation of not having a lot, and not being able to move together, you get a lot more done that way.
So the war breaks out (in 1990). Both of us are active duty. What do we do with the kids? We were both on the manning doc to leave at the same time. He was with an infantry unit and I was with 2nd Maintenance Battalion. He was told he had to go. I was told I was going to stay back.
Heart and soul went into training recruits, and not a lot of that went into my family. So we had our separation and we got the divorce right after that.
That special duty assignment, times two, allowed me to be successful. The combat deployments as a sergeant major, that helped me as well.
To have a more even balance of life … you need to have a yin with a yang. It completes the full circle when you have a partner to share with.
[My second fiancé] had cancer and they found out a year after we had been engaged and it was so aggressive. Our baby was born, and five months later her dad passed.
I instantly became a single parent. So, I called Mom again. She came out to Hawaii, helped me raise my daughter.
I’m in this uniform; I have my sword with me and it’s the end of the ceremony, and I’m the new sergeant major of Combat Logistics Battalion 3, and then my dad comes up … He takes his lei and he takes it off of him and he puts it on me. And of course everybody there got a picture of it. I was very proud – very proud to stand there with Dad.
It was a tough six months, the last six months. But I was glad I was there … that whole six months of (dad) going through chemo. He would tell me every day, and everyone in the chemo room knew that I was a Marine and that he was too. “I want to introduce you to my daughter.” He was a proud dad.
It would have been nice to sit down with a female sergeant major early in my career and for her to give me a road map.
When I retire, I hope somebody says, “I remember Maness. She inspired me to do this.”
1st Air Force woman in space talks on secrets of success
By Airman 1st Class Samantha Saulsbury, 460th Space Wing
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – From becoming the first U.S. military woman in space to commanding a numbered Air Force, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, former 14th Air Force commander, revealed the secrets of her success to airmen. She spoke at Buckley Air Force Base during a Women’s History Month address last March before retiring in April.
She addressed reaching for opportunities, the importance of having a positive attitude and the power of women believing in themselves.
“This is my favorite kind of speech to give,” Helms said. “It gives me a chance to talk to other women and give you some good advice. Women’s History Month is a chance to reflect on the past, along with a chance to inspire people who are going to be making history in the future.”
Helms’ father was a Vietnam War helicopter pilot who she credits as her biggest inspiration in her decision to join the military. By the time she was applying to college, Congress changed the law to allow women to apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“I wanted to be in the Air Force just like my dad for as long as I could remember,” Helms said. “It was one of the few places in the 70s you could get equal work for equal pay.”
Helms is amazed by the many opportunities that have become open to women within the past few decades, saying there is nothing women can’t overcome.
“When I got out of the astronaut corps, it was wonderful to see how broadly the military had become integrated,” Helms remembered. “By then we had female Thunderbird pilots, female fighter pilots... there really isn’t a job that isn’t fully integrated. It’s wonderful to see how the military embraced that and valued the diversity of both genders.”
Helms continued her education at Stanford University after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where she met her hero and role model, Sally Ride, the first woman in space.
“When she spoke, she was super normal; was the thing that astounded me,” Helms, who has performed the longest space walk for nearly 9 hours, said. “She was just an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance. Heroes are who you want them to be. They’re not necessarily what the media or pop culture puts in front of you. Meeting her made me realize that’s she’s just a human being. That’s when I think I realized what was possible.”
Helms’ mother and father made sure she and her sisters know they could accomplish anything, refusing to set up boundaries because they were female. Speaking highly of the strong people that pushed her to be everything she is today, she remembers how important it is to be a great role model, especially to a young child.
“Whether you know it or not, you have no idea the sheer influence you can have on someone,” Helms stressed. “Your impact on this world can be very surprising. You never know how something you say is going to end up resonating and sticking with the people. Remember that it takes 10 positive comments to balance out one negative.”
Helms, a flight engineer before becoming an astronaut, stressed the importance of loving what you do and keeping a positive attitude.
“If you do something you really enjoy and have a passion for it, you’re going to be really good at it,” Helms said. “The power of your dreams and the power of your goals and commitments is what really end up creating those opportunities.
“Part of it is luck, part of it is timing, but part of it is being ready,” Helms said. “Set yourself up for when those opportunities reveal themselves,” she said.
Female troops tackle Ranger course
By Wallace McBride, Fort Jackson Leader
FORT JACKSON, S.C. – First Lt. Christel Sacco said she never imagined getting a chance to earn the Ranger tab.
The Army decoration signifies a soldier has completed the Ranger School combat leadership course, generally considered to be the toughest of its kind in the world. Until 2012 women had been banned from Army combat and hence Ranger training.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh recently approved the admission of women in the spring phase of this year’s Ranger course assessment, removing one of the obstacles between women and the Ranger designation. But before admission, women must first complete the two-week long Ranger Training Assessment Course, or RTAC.
“I wanted to be a part of that elite organization,” said Sacco, of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment. “I honestly thought that my time had passed. I was fully accepting my mentees, or even my children, having this opportunity, but not me.”
As a college freshman, Sacco was part of Loyola University Maryland’s ROTC program, which received a visit from an Army Ranger. He encouraged her me to pursue becoming a Ranger.
Sacco was among the first group of women to take part in the RTAC, which wrapped Jan. 30 at Fort Benning, Ga. Despite the press coverage the event received, she said it still came as a surprise to many of the men there.
“We were told, ‘Everyone’s here to be an Army Ranger, so let’s train like that and not let gender come into play,’” she said “We slept in the same barracks and used the same latrines, did the same training with the same standards.”
She said the attitudes she witnessed on the first day were just “growing pains.”
“I think the Army is continuing to try to figure it out and understand what it means when we say we’re truly ‘gender integrated,’” said Lt. Col. James Allen, 1-61st commander. “I’m excited about this, and I hope 1st Lt. Sacco has every opportunity to succeed.”
The concept of gender-integrated training for Rangers is new to everybody on both sides of the experience, she said, command and soldiers alike.
“All the females involved are trailblazers,” she said. “They’re pushing through their own chains of command all over the Army right now to get into (RTAC.)”
RTAC consists of two phases. The first phase is reflects the assessment portion of Ranger School, which challenges mental and physical fitness. It includes a physical training test, land navigation and a 6-mile march.
“There are certain standards you have to meet in order to move forward and stay in the course,” Sacco said. “Many of them are physical, but some are technical or tactical. … Everybody finds it to be extremely difficult.”
The second phase remains physically challenging and involves a field training exercise to test patrolling and troop landing procedures.
“I would argue that the mental aspect is more of a challenge than the physical aspect,” she said. “It’s in your head: ‘Can I pick up one more ruck? Can I fight one more battle drill, do one more patrol and make it up one more mountain before my body quits on me?’”
“God was my friend at RTAC,” she added.
Sending a soldier to leadership training courses like RTAC costs both the soldier and his or her unit. There is the temporary loss of a company executive officer, and the soldier must train rigorously in the months leading up to the course.
“You just don’t show up at Ranger School hoping you’ll be taught how to do everything,” Allen said. “You go there to be tested and evaluated.”
“You have to get out there and wear a super heavy 80-pound ruck with 20 pounds of equipment on a training day here at Fort Jackson,” Sacco said. “It will prepare you mentally. You’ll feel the pain before you’re out there doing it.”
Allen said that Sacco’s dedication to training was why she was sent to RTAC. She had trained since fall to make the cut.
“She showed up and said, ‘I want to do this,’ and has not slowed down since,” he said. “Army Physical Readiness Training with basic combat trainees is not the PT necessary to get into shape for Ranger School. So she’s got to make time to do extra foot movements, extra running and extra PT.”
Sacco was eliminated from the course early after failing to complete the pushup tests. All of the soldiers who washed out of this phase – both men and women – were allowed to complete the two-week course. Sacco was among those who did.
“That commitment to accomplish the mission is absolutely critical for soldiers whenever they are in an environment that’s not training,” she said. “That willingness not to give up is hugely important.”
Of the 122 Soldiers who began the course, 58 graduated. Three more RTAC courses will be held before the Ranger course’s start date. Sacco said her application packet for the next is already prepared and awaiting evaluation.
Native American Navy veteran paved way for women sailors
By Shannon Collins, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
SOUTH GATE, Calif. – The head woman dancer at a recent Native American Veterans Association pow wow is a retired sailor who helped blaze the path for women in the Navy.
Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Old Horn-Purdy, from the Crow tribe, took part in the annual Veterans Appreciation and Heritage Day Pow Wow here on Nov. 8-9, 2014. She was one of the first females in the Navy to serve on a combatant ship.
Long before she ever set out to sea, however, Horn-Purdy’s journey began on the Crow Agency reservation in Montana.
“I grew up around very traditional grandparents, and my father would pass down stories. We had oral history,” she said. “They would teach us from our ancestors. Nothing was written down. I grew up knowing some of my language, but my first language was English. I went to school off the reservation, so I lived in both worlds.”
She said it was a culture shock when she went to the school off the reservation, but she had to adapt.
Horn-Purdy said she joined the military for the benefits, such as education, training and travel.
“I needed a place to sleep, something to eat and, for me, that was good enough,” she said, adding that she wanted to “learn, that was the main reason.” She said she can relate to other military people coming from other countries who are just glad to have some place to sleep, eat and work.
When she got to her ship in 1985, she found out she was among the first group of women on her deployed ship. Then, in 1999, she found out that she was to be among the first group of women on a combatant ship.
“It was hard, but we had to adapt if we wanted to continue and learn and do our job,” she said. She was in engineering but wasn’t allowed to call herself a machinist at that time. She said that, at her three-year mark in service, the career field opened up to women.
“I ended up becoming a machinist, one of the first women in there,” she said. “I ended up advancing quickly through that because not too many people wanted to be in there. I don’t know if it was because I was naïve or young, but I used to think, ‘I’m going to be tough. I’m Indian. I’m going to make it.’ It was hard to learn the theories and engineering principles. I’m thankful for the co-workers who helped me through it. It was hard, but I got through it.
“I’m appreciative of those particular men who would look beyond my race and gender and would try to teach me and help me to think the way I should think so I have a lot to be thankful for. They helped me learn,” she said.
Serving in the military is also a Native American tradition. Her paternal grandfather, Allen Old Horn served in the Army in World War II and her maternal grandfather, George Thompson, was in the Navy in World War II. Her great uncles Barney and Henry Old Coyote were code talkers in World War II, and great-grandfather James Red Fox was also one in World War I.
Old Horn-Purdy said her father, Sarge Old Horn Sr., encouraged her throughout her time in the military and is proud of her time in the uniform.
Since the Beginning
She said Native Americans have defended America since the beginning.
“Native Americans weren’t given medals or accolades that we get now for defending America,” she said. “But we still have to protect America, no matter what. It’s in our blood.”
She encourages people to attend pow wows in their communities to learn more about Native American culture.
“You don’t have to be Indian to be at a pow wow,” she said. “Many people don’t know anything about Indians so it’s great to educate them about us, because Indians have a different viewpoint and different stories. It’s good for people to learn and see what we’re all about.”
Like mom like daughter – reserve airman
Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command
First Lt. Meaghan Cosand didn’t always want to be a pilot in the Air Force Reserve, but the fact that she ended up as one shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, flying for the Reserve is kind of a family business for the Cosands.
Meaghan flies C-5 Galaxies for the Reserve’s 349th Air Mobility Wing out of Travis Air Force Base, Cali. Her mother, Kathy, served in the Reserve for 30 years, primarily flying C-141 Starlifters, before retiring in 2006. Meaghan’s brother, Rob, a captain, flies KC-135 Stratotankers for the Reserve’s 434th Air Refueling Wing out of Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind. Meaghan’s dad, Bob, is the oddball. He never flew for the Reserve, but he was an active-duty Air Force pilot for 23 years before retiring in 2000. “Flying is definitely in my blood,” Meaghan said. “I’ve grown up around it all my life.”
And while Rob knew from an early age that he wanted to be a pilot, the flying bug waited a little later to bite Meaghan. So Meaghan signed up for some classes at the Scott AFB, Illinois, Aero Club when she was 17, and she was hooked.
“My mom and dad saw how much I enjoyed it, and that was it.”
Meaghan went on to the University of Oklahoma, like her mother and brother, where she majored in aviation management. One of the first things she did after graduation was join the Air Force Reserve.
“My grandparents live in Vallejo, California, so I interviewed for a Reserve job at Travis in 2010.”
She was hired and has been serving in the 349th AMW ever since. Meaghan said that once she decided on pursuing a career as a pilot, her parents were extremely supportive of her decision.
As if there weren’t enough Air Force pilots in the family already, Meaghan is engaged to an active-duty MC-12 Liberty pilot, Capt. Mark Camp, who is stationed at Beale AFB in California. The couple is planning an April wedding, and they are currently living in Sacramento, about halfway between Beale and Travis. Flying is definitely the primary topic of conversation whenever the Cosand family gets together. They talk about flying for the Reserve, and they also talk about flying for the airlines. Kathy and Rob are both 767 pilots for American Airlines, based in Miami. They are believed to be the first mother-son team to fly the same aircraft for American out of the same hub.
It’s not uncommon for the sons of Air Force Reserve pilots to follow in their father’s footsteps, but it is rarer for daughters to follow in their mother’s footsteps. Currently there are 208 pilots assigned to the 349th AMW. Thirteen are female.
“It’s still a male-dominated profession, but I know I have it a lot easier than my mom did when she was flying for the Reserve,” Meaghan said. “I am so thankful for people like my mom who blazed the trail for people like me.”
As one of the first female pilots in the Air Force, Kathy said she faced a lot of obstacles.
“I had a lot of great instructors and mentors who helped me early on in my career, but there were definitely some people who didn’t think women should be flying airplanes,” she said. “I had this one old flight engineer who flat out refused to talk to me directly. My attitude was, ‘I’m gonna show this SOB how I can fly this plane.’”
Then there was the time she flew into Kenya, and officials at the airport there refused to accept that she was the aircraft commander.
“They wouldn’t let me lead my crew through customs,” she said.
And the times she flew into Turkey, and the Turkish air traffic controllers refused to talk to her over the radio. And the time a group of Marines was set to board her C-141 when they saw that the pilot and co-pilot were both women and asked the loadmaster, “Oh my God, is it safe?” And he told them, “They ain’t killed us yet.”
In 1977, Kathy and nine other female officers were the first women to graduate from the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training Program, with Kathy holding the only Air Force Reserve slot in Class 77-08.
She was the first female pilot to earn the Air Medal following a mission to Zaire in 1978.
“The mission commander … told me to get to the aircraft right away,” Kathy said. “There was a contingency going on in Zaire at the time, and as soon as they saw I was a woman, they would kick me off the mission. I managed to sneak on and fly missions for a week.”
When Kathy found out she was pregnant with Rob in 1983, she was grounded right away, but Air Force rules had changed a little by the time she got pregnant with Meaghan in 1988.
“By that time, you could fly up to 24 weeks if you had a waiver,” Kathy said. “I was one of the first women to apply for the waiver, and I got it. So Meaghan was flying with me before she even knew it.”
Guardsman helps highlight military women
By Lt. j.g. Katie Braynard, the U.S. Coast Guard
“A photograph is worth a thousand words.”
We’ve all heard this saying for countless years, and for Therese Hughes, she believed photographs would hopefully tell a rich history of women’s service in the military.
After working through the Department of Defense, Hughes began a project to collect 90 photographs of women serving in each branch of the military to compile into a photojournalism book that would live on for decades and tell the stories of each of those women’s service.
Hughes began her interviews in California, and word spread like wildfire about the initiative.
“One name went to 25, 25 went to 300, and as of September of this year, I had interviewed almost 800 women, from World War II to present,” she said.
Hughes, whose mother joined the WAVES during World War II, knew nothing about her mother’s service. She said her mother never spoke of her service and never kept any records. Hughes learned more about her mother’s service from a photograph sent to Hughes by her cousin after her mother had passed away. In the photo, her mother was 25 years old and graduating from officer candidate school. This is part of the inspiration that spurred her interest in the project.
And now, this project will help to preserve the history and honor women that choose to serve our country and ensure their legacies do not go untold.
“It has been phenomenal,” Hughes said.
Hughes began her work with the Coast Guard with Robbie Fee, a Coast Guard veteran who served from 1985 to 1994. She went on to interview Rear Adm. Cari Thomas. She then went on to connect with Vice Adm. Jody Breckenridge, who opened the door for Hughes to interview SPARs and countless others – to include junior and senior enlisted and junior officers currently serving. One of the women she eventually came into contact with was Petty Officer 1st Class Mallory Stonehouse, a storekeeper stationed in San Francisco, California, at the time.
Stonehouse jumped right into assisting Hughes with her project, pulling women together to participate in interviews and offering any assistance she could provide.
“I was so impressed with Ms. Stonehouse,” said Hughes. “You remember people like that. She spoke about the core patriotism she had. She talked about when she was younger and enlisted and how she grew and adapted to where she is now. I was just really impressed by her.”
Eventually, Hughes’ project became more than a book – it became a display called “In a Heart Beat” at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The opening for the exhibit was the Friday before Veteran’s Day weekend – and Hughes reached out to Stonehouse to see if she would be willing to attend and speak at the event.
“When Mrs. Hughes emailed me and told me that my photo and interview would be part of the ‘In a Heart Beat’ exhibit, I was extremely humbled,” said Stonehouse. “Then when she asked me to speak at the event I was literally left speechless.”
Stonehouse was the only Coast Guard member in attendance for the event, representing all the Coast Guard women that had shared their stories and experiences with Hughes.
“For today, I represent the now and the future of women in the military,” Stonehouse said in her speech at the event.
Stonehouse went on to describe how it was important for her to be there in order to better understand and pay respect to the women who enabled her to be standing there.
She ended with a simple message to all the veteran women in attendance.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for your service, thank you for your tolerance, thank you for your bravery and thank you for paving the way for my future. I will continue your efforts to ensure the service for future female generations is as positive as my own.”
Timeline of Women Military History
Women commonly served traditional roles within the U.S. Army such as cooks, laundresses, nurses and seamstresses. Many military garrisons counted on these roles to makes service members’ lives tolerable. However, even during the American Revolution some women chose to for-go traditional roles by serving in combat alongside their husbands or disguised as men, while other courageous women took on roles as spies.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker volunteers to care for wounded service members in the Union Army and is later appointed the first female surgeon. In 1865, she received the Medal of Honor for her work and was the first woman to receive the award.
Congress officially establishes the Army Nurse Corps on Feb. 2, 1901, under the Army Reorganization Act.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorizes the creation of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard women’s auxiliary/reserves. The Army’s female auxiliary members become known as the WAACs; their Navy counterparts become known as the WAVEs.
The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act grants women permanent regular and reserve status in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and the newly created Air Force. In addition, Executive Order 9981 ends racial segregation in the armed services.
Marine Corps Master Sgt. Barbara Jean Dulinsky becomes the first female Marine to serve in a combat zone in Vietnam. She was assigned to U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam combat operations center in Saigon.
Marine Corps Col. Margaret A. Brewer becomes a brigadier general - the first female general in the Corps’ history. Navy nurse Joan C. Bynum becomes the first African-American woman to be promoted to the rank of captain.
Navy Lt. Comm. Darlene Iskra becomes the first woman to command a commissioned naval ship when she assumes command of the USS Opportune in Naples, Italy.
Gilda Jackson becomes the first African-American woman to achieve the rank of colonel within the Marine Corps and the first woman to command the Naval Aviation Depot at Cherry Point, N.C.
Marine Corps Capt. Vernice Armour becomes the first female African-American pilot in the Marine Corps, and later becomes the first woman in Defense Department history to fly combat missions in Iraq.
Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Jeanine McIntish-Menze becomes the first female African-American U.S. Coast Guard pilot. Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski becomes the first female pilot to join the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron.
The first all-female U.S. Marine Corps team conducts its first mission in Southern Afghanistan. Lt. Felicia Thomas becomes the first female African-Amercian commander of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter when she assumes command of the CGC Pea Island.
On Jan. 24, 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta lifted the barriers that have prevented military women from serving in direct combat roles.