As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I’m taking the time to reflect and consider how the roles of female military members have evolved in the past 80 years.
Women have gone from a volunteer role to leading military career fields. We stand at a momentous point in military history and I feel a need to honor those women who have developed and mentored the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines into the warriors of today. If it were not for their courage and sacrifice, I would never have been inspired to develop a military career of my own.
It has long been known women played an important role during World War I and World War II. As the men went off to war, females filled the jobs left behind. However, a few adventurous souls chose to volunteer and aid the military. I can remember my grandmother telling me stories about her service as a Women’s Army Corps officer or my great aunt Madeline telling me of her nursing service in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Women like these were the first to serve and acted as a catalyst to mold the military women of today.
The 1960s and 1970s brought changes on many levels. The Vietnam conflict was the center of debate. More than 7,500 women served on active duty and upwards of 11,000 were in civilian roles. Women’s careers were mainly nurses, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers and a few other professions. One of my heroes from this era was Capt. Mary Therese Klinker, a flight nurse assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Klinker played a key role in Operation Babylift during the Vietnam War. Her courageous acts in the evacuation of Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. supported the humanitarian efforts. On April 4, 1975, Klinker paid the ultimate price when the C-5A Galaxy that was used during this operation crashed, killing all on board. Klinker was posthumously awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal.
During the 1980s, it was Sally Ride who broke the barriers in aviation and space flight. Sally became the first American woman in space and went on to crew two missions aboard the space shuttle. She opened the door for women in what have been considered unconventional military roles.
In the 1990s, the world watched as media franchises promoted the female warrior and an entire nation witnessed operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm unfold right in our living rooms. More than 40,000 women were deployed to these combat zones. We observed these Airmen exceed as jet tanker pilots, guards in charge of prisoners of war, and transport troops who delivered needed supplies. These women did everything except engage in ground combat. Sixteen women died during this war, and Army Spc. Melissa Rathburn and Maj. Rhonda L. Cornum were captured as POWs.
In 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked. Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom commenced. Women made up 14 percent of the U.S. military with 165,000 women enlisted and 35,000 serving as officers. We watched as Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to receive the Silver Star for exceptional valor in close-quarters combat after leading her team in a 25-minute fire fight. We acknowledged with pride the countless female aviators who departed on aerial combat missions and honor the female medics who redefined combat medicine resulting in a 98 percent survival rate.
These women of the past have brought us to where we stand today and for that I am thankful. As we look into the future of our women in the military, we find ourselves at what some may call the last hurdle. In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted. The change will be gradual and each branch of the military has until 2016 to request exceptions. I believe the women serving in the U.S. military are ready to move forward in this chapter in history. We have proven our dedication to the mission and sacrifice for our country. As our roles continue to evolve we must look to the past and remind ourselves of those who came before us. We need to continue to mentor, lead and prepare our military women for tomorrow’s mission.
It is our responsibility as leaders to ensure we eliminate the threat of sexual harassment and assaults that plague our Airmen in today’s society. We must deliver a brighter future for the new officers and enlisted joining our forces today. Now is the time to mentor these Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors into the heroes of tomorrow.