Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Part one was published March 24 and can be found online at www.observertoday.com
In the Revolutionary War, women were credited as being among the United States' spies and saboteurs. Some women were "camp followers," following their husbands' units to wherever duty took them, at times even bringing their children. Old Army records show that some women took up military positions of the men killed on the battlefield. Other cases involved women cutting their hair short and enlisting as men so that they could actually be placed in combat positions. The Civil War registered more than 200 women who died of battlefield conditions. Most of these deaths were confirmed by the human remains left on the battlefields.
Civil War surgeon Mary Elwater received the Medal of Honor for her service. Harriet Tubman led a group of spies, and was the first woman to lead a U.S. military expedition. Elizabeth Vanlew ran one of the most sophisticated spy rings of the Union. Clara Barton's experiences risking her life to bring medical supplies to the troops on the frontlines led to her organization of the American Red Cross in 1881.
It wasn't until 1901 that the United States military officially recognized the potential benefit of allowing women into the military. In June, the United States Army Nurse Corps was founded. It took the Navy seven more years to follow suit.
In the Spanish-American War, a devastating human toll was taken by diseases like typhoid fever and malaria. In an unprecedented move, the government mobilized 1500 nurses, the first-ever major assignment of all-female personnel in U.S. history. When the nurses were ordered back home, the ship's log listed 21 nurses who lost their own lives to the diseases they had dedicated their efforts to fighting.
After that job well done, the Army Surgeon General decided it was time to create an Army Nurse Corps that would be run as a military unit. The nurses would be given uniforms, be rewarded by rank, and given the official respect they deserved. Along with this unit, the Army Surgeon General also requested the formation of a Reserve Army Nurse Corps.
The following World Wars and conflicts proved that more and more that women could help our country. They showed that they could easily do America's non-combat duty jobs, which freed the men who once held those positions to fight.
For the first time, women other than Army nurses were allowed to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps. They held military jobs like draftsmen, telephone operators, clerks, cooks and storeroom clerks. The United States now boasts 5,000,000 men and 35,000 women.
World War II saw a lot of changes in the way we run our military branches. A war fought on two fronts meant that everyday things needed to change in order for us to win. As more men went to war, more women went to work. In addition to their new roles at home, women began to fill more and more positions in the military. Opening a newspaper in the morning, it was common to see such initials as Women's Army Corps (WAC) and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in the headlines.
One aspect of this era was that traditional gender roles were starting to break down. Women who had formerly cleaned and kept house went to work in factories and on assembly lines. The United States began to notice how competent women were, and the women themselves began to notice, too. This newfound sense of purpose and accomplishment was one good thing among the difficult aspects of that time period.
What is just as impressive as what these women did was why they did it. There was no mandatory draft for these women to join the workforce. There was no blacklisting or jail time for them if they chose to stay home. These women simply answered the call to help their country. Work needed to be done, and regardless of wealth, age, creed or color, these women showed up every day to punch in and build what their country needed.
VIETNAM AND BEYOND
It wasn't long after the victory of WWII that the United States was back at war. It took just over five years before we were sending our young men overseas again, but this time it was called a "Police Action." Men were being killed daily and the women, as usual, were there ready for duty.
Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan all followed, along with the Cuban Missile Crisis and other military operations. It's like the United States just needs to be involved in some kind of war. The types of wars we fight, the reasons we fight them, and what we fight them with are all different from the days of the World Wars. In WWI, men fought out of trenches, gaining only inches a month. In WWII, technology had improved, but it was nothing like the machines of war that the United States wields today.
The Vietnam War was the first in-color, televised war that the American public could tune into on a daily basis. What we saw shocked us. We watched what the war did to both sides, and every night on the news, we learned the latest numbers of tallied dead. The Vietnam War had no front or rear; the war was everywhere and spreading with no safe zone. During this war, 7,484 women set their feet on hostile Vietnam soil. Of those women, 6,250 were nurses who served anywhere from in the main military hospitals to one of two hospital ships we had, the USS Sanctuary and the USS Repose. Some served in battalion aid stations, located no more than five miles from the actual conflict zones. Vietnam claimed the lives of 16 women.
The War on Terror has changed the duties of women in combat. Scud missiles, IED mines and self-detonating landmines make any American a target, regardless of gender. Fighting in Kuwait killed four American women. The War in Iraq has killed 97 to date. The count of American women dead in Afghanistan is 35.
There is no way to list all the ways in which women have helped the United States to fight and win wars. There is no way to adequately thank them. There is no good enough way to honor their efforts, but their courage and patriotism will be remembered forever.
Of all the wars the United States has become involved in, the one that seemed to most unite its people under one common cause was World War II. It was a war that needed to be fought, a war upon which the freedom of an oppressed people rested. It was a war that needed the effort of every American man and woman, and a war that made all of us proud to call the United States home.
Korea and Vietnam may go down in most history books as our forgotten wars, but the human life lost in those wars was too great to be swept away by time and short memories.
HONORING OUR SERVICEWOMEN
American men have a long legacy of bravery and patriotism, but American women are also a significant part of this country's military past. Part of the purpose of today's column is to help them get the recognition they deserve. We now have women serving as admirals and generals. There are females serving in Special Forces and in combat units. And those women who served as nurses and spies so long ago are the ones who paved the way for today's women to hold these honorable positions.
I have had the honor to do eight stories on women who have served in the military and who have done their duty for our country. I want to personally thank you for your service.
To all the women who have served our military, either in combat or support service roles, enlisted or otherwise, to the soldiers and sailors and pilots and reservists and nurses and marines and Rosie the Riveters and more, I must say thank you!
And in closing, I want to honor all the Blue and Gold Star Mothers out there who have supported their children as they served our country. To the Blue Star Mothers, thank you for being patient and for sacrificing having your children with you at home. To the Gold Star Mothers, I know nothing can replace your beloved child, and that the grief you experienced at losing your son or daughter is something you carry with you every day. God bless all of you.
To the women who have served or are serving our country in our time of need, thank you. You are our heroes of the week.
Submitted by John Fedyszyn, Vietnam Veteran