Face of Defense: Former WACs Recall Their Army Journeys
345th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif., July 20, 2012 – When you picture a soldier today, the image of either a man or a woman in uniform may come to mind. Forty years ago, that picture wasn’t as diverse.
Two female soldiers, who joined up during the mid-1970s when Army women served in an entirely separate branch, recounted their experiences and how they overcame challenges as the Army transitioned into today’s force.
“I was the first in a lot of things, but I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I just happened to be in that spot at that time in history and didn’t know it,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Grace Davidson, a Harrisburg, Ark., native who joined the Army in April 1975.
At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the role for women in the Army began evolving from serving in an all-female Women’s Army Corps to becoming members of a gender-integrated force.
“I was still at home and out of high school and had to do something so my parents said, ‘You need to go to college,’ But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to major in -- in life,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Verdean Miller, an Albuquerque, N.M. native, and assistant noncommissioned officer-in-charge of personnel and administration with the 90th Sustainment Brigade, based out of North Little Rock, Ark.
Miller, who joined the Army two months after Davidson in June 1975, said she was sitting in class at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College at Pine Bluff, now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, one very hot summer day when she decided that after class, she would talk to a recruiter and take the placement test to join the military.
Although she gave all the service branches an initial thought, Miller had participated in Army ROTC at the university and ultimately chose the Army. She left for basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., in January 1976. Miller said she knew then she would serve for 20 years.
Davidson said she joined the Army because she wanted to further her high school education and receive the Vietnam-era GI Bill. She signed up for the WAC when she was 17 and left for basic after turning 18. Davidson went to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., where she would eventually out-process from active duty into the Individual Ready Reserve.
“I initially signed up for four years. Back then, women didn’t have to do the eight-year commitment like they do now,” said Davidson, currently an information systems technician with the 90th Sustainment Brigade. She extended a year and served five years on active duty.
For Davidson and Miller, basic training was completely separated from men; unlike today’s integrated basic training in which men and women train together, yet live in separate quarters.
The Women’s Army Corps, created during World War II, disbanded in 1978.
“They were slowly integrating us into the regular Army, and when the WAC went away it just kind of disappeared, faded away. You almost didn’t know it went away,” Davidson said. “They had just started teaching women to fire an M-16 and that was interesting. I had never fired a rifle before and I fired expert. Probably because I didn’t know any different and did exactly what they told me to do.”
Miller said, “I began to meet other young ladies coming from all walks of life. It was a very interesting experience. Because coming up, I really didn’t deal with other races of people before because the neighborhood I lived in was all black, the university I went to was all black, so every now and then I would come in contact [with people from different racial backgrounds] but not like I did when I first came into the Army.”
After basic training, Davidson went to Fort Devens, Mass., for school to become an electronic warfare/intercept systems repairman, while Miller went to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., to become a personnel management specialist.
Davidson, who spent five years on active duty, said while she was out-processing at Fort Jackson, a recruiter recommended she join the IRR so she could re-enlist later if she wanted. Davidson met her husband during her five years of active-Army service and they had two small sons at the time she left active duty.
“When I went to Germany, I was the first woman in my unit,” said Davidson, who served in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, during her active-duty status. “They had never had a woman in that unit before. My platoon sergeant didn’t like that idea very much. I was in the 8th Infantry Division. We were in the field all the time. It wasn’t easy, but I had decided I was going to pull my weight and I told them if I can’t pull my weight, get rid of me and I meant it.”
Davidson, who has three grown sons who have served overseas as well, said she hid her first pregnancy for as long as possible because she did not want to let down her team members and company, and would continue to do as much as she could until they would not let her go to the field anymore.
“At that time, if you were a female with a family and your husband was also a soldier, if you got out, that was it. They wouldn’t take you back if you had a family,” Davidson said. “So [joining the IRR] was the best thing I ever did because I wouldn’t have been able to come back.”
After being in the IRR a little over a year and after her third son was born, Davidson said she missed the Army and decided to join the Army Reserve as a radio-teletype or “RATT-Rig operator,” a military occupational specialty which doesn’t exist anymore, she said. Davidson would earn the rank of sergeant, which was referred to as a “buck sergeant.”
“There was no accession for a ‘RATT-Rig’ operator in my unit, so I became an ammunition inspector, 55 X-Ray. Then, that’s how I became a warrant officer,” she said. “I did that for several years and we had a couple of warrant officer vacancies in our unit and I applied for warrant officer and I got my bar.”
Miller, on the other hand, remained on active duty for 12 years and in that time she became both a drill sergeant and an airborne instructor for the Army. She’d served nearly twelve and a half years when her parents became severely ill. Miller joined the Army Reserve in 1998 after a 10-year break in service, after her sister moved back home and told her she could finish her 20 years.
“When I joined the Reserve, they needed drill sergeants again,” Miller said. “As a reservist, I continued my drill sergeant status at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.”
Miller said she did not always agree with the male/female integrated training concept and believed that male drill sergeants should train male recruits while female drill sergeants trained female recruits during basic training. Afterward, she said, the two genders could come together to train during Advanced Individual Training.
“I have always talked to the females [in the training] platoons and said be proud of who you are. You have worked hard to get where you need to go,” Miller said of her time as a drill sergeant. “You don’t have to lower your standards to get to where you need to go. You should work hard and study hard to excel in life.”
Both women would continue their Army Reserve careers, eventually serving together in Balad, Iraq, from 2009 to 2010 with the 90th SB. They have continued to work with each other in that unit since.
“Joining the military … was one of the best things I ever did in my life,” Miller said. “Staying in was even better because now I’m looking at 26-27 years [of military service] and I am getting close to retirement and I just don’t see how a person can go wrong.”
“It is just amazing the stuff that I’ve learned,” said Davidson, speaking about the benefits of her nearly 40 years of military service. “People think I am so smart, but it is my soldiers who are smarter and they make me look smart. The training I’ve gotten has been great and my retirement is going to be really good.”
Both Davidson and Miller aren’t sure when they will retire, but they hope to leave a positive influence behind for the younger troops.
“Being in the military is like anything else,” Miller said. “Like a job, you have to discipline yourself and in order to advance you have to seek education, you have to seek knowledge.”
“Everyone is important, even if you don’t have a lot of ‘hero badges,’” Davidson said. “I think that’s important for people to remember. That’s what I have done my whole career mostly, is just let people be able to communicate, and that’s an important thing. I might not have a chest full of ribbons and badges, but I feel like I have done my part.”