Both my grandmothers served in the United States army during World War I. Like Lauren (the protagonist in Be Safe I Love You, a veteran soldier who has served in Iraq), they enlisted in order to seek a better future than offered in their small hometowns. They were among more than 20,000 nurses serving in the United States and overseas between the years of 1917-1918.
American women have long had a role in the military, beginning with the Revolutionary War in 1775, when they worked as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs. They even dressed as men to fight alongside them in the Civil War.
After the support of army nurses during the Spanish-American war the Army Nurse Corps was founded in 1901 with the Navy Nurse Corps following in 1908.
During World War II more than 150,000 women served in the Women's Army Corps. Women Airforce Service Pilots flew as civil service pilots. In addition, the Navy recruited women into their WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program. These women filled billets in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine and administration. Both the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps also created their own Women's Reserve Corps. These women in the reserve units were then called to duty during the Korean War. All these service organizations saw women in a variety of supporting roles, but not in active combat situations. Even so, significant numbers of women have died in past wars. For example, over 500 military women died in the line of duty during World War II. Sixteen of these died from enemy fire and the rest from a variety of causes including aircraft and vehicle accidents.
During the years of the Vietnam War (1965-1975), women's rights made some progress. A ceiling on the highest grade a woman could achieve was repealed and the first Air Force woman was promoted to brigadier general in 1971. By 1972, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was opened to Army and Navy women. The end of the draft in 1973, resulting in a smaller pool of eligible men to choose from, was significant in that women started to take on a wider variety of military roles.
During the First Gulf War (1990-91) the army deployed 40,000 women in combat-support positions. Shortly after, in 1993, the navy permitted women to serve on combat ships.
The idea of women serving in combat continues to be a controversial topic. In 2013 U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta formally lifted the ban on women serving in combat positions, giving military branches until 2016 to open these positions regardless of gender. However, some physical requirements—the necessity of which are being questioned by some—seem designed to prevent women from being able to qualify for certain combat roles.
Despite being involved in the U.S. military since the country's inception, women still struggle for respect and opportunity for advancement within the male-dominated environment.
Picture of WAVES recruitment poster from Women Veterans Connect
This article was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for the
April 2015 paperback release.
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