A salute to women's history
Editor’s note: March is National Women’s History Month, and Stripes Guam is honoring our courageous women in uniform – past and present – by sharing their historic stories each week. If you have such a story to share, send it to GUAM@STRIPES.COM and help us salute women in the military.
From the nurses, seamstresses and cooks who supported troops during the Revolutionary War, to the women who serve in the Army around the world today, women have played a critical role in America’s defense, and their impact is expanding.
Retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody is a part of American military history. In 2008, she became the first female four-star general in the U.S. armed forces.
“Women have made remarkable strides in the military and have done so much for the nation,” said Dunwoody, who retired in 2012 after 38 years of service and voiced support for female combat roles. “The policy change reflects the reality that women have been serving in harm’s way for more than a decade.”
“I thought a lot about people like the Tuskegee Airmen and then all the African-American women who had served before me, first as nurses in World War I and then later in a variety of positions during World War II,” Anderson said.
Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, director of Army Reserve Human Capital Core Enterprise, also credits past trailblazers for her proudest accomplishments of becoming a jumpmaster and a senior parachutist, and being the first openly gay flag officer.
“I feel like I am a role model for Army values and for personal courage and for integrity,” said Smith.
Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Broadway was the first female cadet to receive an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps commission from Kansas State University. She entered active duty in 1976 and transferred to the Army Reserve in 1979 before retiring in 2011.
“I had great male supervisors and great male [noncommissioned officers] who helped me, counseled me, pointed me in the right direction, who truly didn’t see me as a female second lieutenant,” she said. “They saw me as a second lieutenant who just happened to be female.”
Col. Aimee Kominiak, commander of the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade in Fort Lee, Va., was a platoon leader who deployed to Panama with her all-male platoon for Operation Just Cause. She earned a combat patch there. Officers and NCOs often asked about it since they weren’t used to seeing women with combat patches.
“It was kind of a paradigm shift because I think the Army and the nation were struggling with this idea of women in combat,” said Kominiak. “When combat broke out in Panama, women were already there on the ground. They were in the middle of it, whether the country wanted them to be there or not.”
Kominiak later served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in which 24,000 women were deployed. “We had women who died, and we had women who were prisoners of war, and we had women who were injured,” she said.
OPENING COMBAT ROLES TO WOMEN
After those desert operations, the Department of Defense barred women from direct combat. In January 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rescinded the ban and the Army has since moved tp open certain jobs to women.
Anderson said the Army benefits from putting women in roles in which they want to serve; so long as they have the necessary skills and physical ability to do the jobs. That includes infantry, she said, adding that it is important for an organization to use all its people’s talents.
“We don’t just go to training to be a finance person or a signal person. We all learn how to fire our assigned weapon,” she said.
Retired Capt. Dawn Halfaker was a military police captain who was wounded in an ambush during a combat patrol in Iraq in 2004.
“I do think that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped to validate the ability of women to perform under combat,” said Halfaker, president of the board of directors for the Wounded Warrior Project.
“I don’t think anyone questioned my ability to lead because I was a woman and I definitely never hesitated to send one of my female soldiers out on a mission,” she said. One of my platoon’s best .50 cal gunners was a woman.”
WOMEN ARMY LEADERS
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a chaplain with the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve, was the first female rabbi in the U.S. military. She is currently the Command Chaplain for the 807th Medical Command, Deployment Support, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“There are just a lot of very strong, powerful, competent, confident women out there leading the way now,” said Koppell.
Women made up 15.7 percent of the total Army in 2012; then 95 percent of Army military occupational specialties were open to women.
“I think the role of women in the Army has just gotten better and better because the Army learns more and more all the time,” said retired Col. Shelley Richardson, a member of the first class of women admitted into West Point in 1976.
“The Army still is going to go through a transition period with the new decisions about women in combat roles,” said Richardson, adding that she’s seen tremendous integration in recent years. “It’s just really great to see.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Mary Brown has served in a variety of staff and leadership positions, including drill instructor. She advanced through the ranks in the male-dominated 92R Parachute Rigger military occupational specialty, eventually becoming the first female parachute rigger to be promoted to command sergeant major.
Her advice to young Army women: “Be who you are. Don’t ever let the gender be the first thing out of your mouth. Be a Soldier first. Be a leader first. Be a follower first. Then everything else with fall in place.”