This Veteran’s Day, Celebrate the Women Who’ve Served

   •    November 10, 2017

Veteran’s Day is a time to give our thanks to current and former members of the US armed forces. That includes women, who joined up in disguise during the American Revolution and today serve openly in every branch. Join us in celebrating all they’ve achieved.

Left: Engraving by George Graham. Right: National Institutes of Health.

In America’s early days, women defied expectations to serve their country.

One of the first American woman soldiers was Deborah Sampson (left), who enlisted in 1782 under her dead brother’s name. She served in the Continental Army for 17 months, and was wounded twice—the second time, she cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so the doctor wouldn’t discover she was a woman. Almost 80 years later, Mary Edwards Walker (right) joined the Union Army as its first female surgeon. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines to treat wounded Confederate soldiers. To this day, she’s the only woman who’s ever been awarded the Medal of Honor.

US Air Force

But it took until the 20th century for their service to be officially sanctioned.

Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, granting women permanent status in the military and entitlement to veteran’s benefits. Almost 30 years later, in 1976, the first women were admitted to US service academies, including West Point. Above, two female army soldiers relax prior to departing on a mission from Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, 2007.

US Marine Corps

In addition to their regular service, women make unique contributions to countering violent extremism.

In recent years, to draw on the unique roles and capabilities of female soldiers, the Marine Corps formed Female Engagement Teams. These all-female teams operate as part of combat patrols, with the primary goal of engaging the local female population—especially in places like Afghanistan, where interactions between local women and male service members would be culturally inappropriate. They even work with wives to encourage their husbands not to get involved with violent extremists.

US Marine Corps

Women have proved their mettle through the toughest tests the military has to offer.

In September 2017, the very first woman graduated from the grueling 13-week Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course, said to be the toughtest training in all the armed forces. Over the last few years, the Pentagon has opened all occupational specialties—including combat positions—to women who qualify. Women like Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro (above), who was among the first three women to graduate from Marine enlisted infantry training in 2013.

US Air Force

In the Air Force, women began by flying thousands of civilian missions.

About 1,100 women flew more than 60 million miles as members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (or WASPs), founded in 1943. The idea, proposed by two female civilian aviators, was to employ qualified female pilots for non-combat missions—ferrying aircraft from factories to military bases, transporting cargo, and towing targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice—thus freeing male pilots up for more World War II combat missions. It wasn’t until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a law granting former WASPs veteran status, though with limited benefits.

US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown

Now there are female pilots throughout the Air Force, including in combat.

In 1976, the US Air Force Academy accepted its first female pilots, like the F-15 Eagle pilots above. Congress wouldn’t authorize women to fly in combat missions until 1991. Today, women make up 19 percent of the Air Force, including 20 percent of officers.

US Coast Guard

The Coast Guard has the highest female enrollment of all the US armed forces.

Last year, the US Coast Guard Academy set a record for female enrollment. Women were 38 percent of new cadets, more than has ever been seen at the Naval Academy, West Point, or the Air Force Academy. It’s no surprise that the Coast Guard Academy was also the first US military academy to be commanded by a woman, Vice Admiral Sandra Stosz. Above, another first: Lt. j.g. Lashanda Holmes, the first female African-American helicopter pilot in Coast Guard history.

US Navy

In the Navy, women held down the home front during World War II.

The US Naval Reserve, better known as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), was born of great need during World War II. Like the Air Force WASPS (see above) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the idea behind the WAVES was to free up men to serve overseas by having women stand in for them at shore stations on the home front. Above, posters that helped recruit more than 85,000 women into the reserve forces, where they served as engineers, machinists, parachute riggers, radiomen, and more.

US Navy

Today, a female naval officer can reach the highest ranks, commanding forces around the world.

More than 70 years after the US Navy established the WAVES, it got its first female four-star admiral in Michelle Howard. Admiral Howard has made a career of firsts: first African-American woman to command a US naval ship, first female graduate of the Naval Academy selected for a flag rank, and first woman to command operational forces (US Naval Forces Europe and Africa).

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