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A Woman's Place Is In the Military

March is Women In History Month

Since the commencement of the war in Iraq, there have been countless stories of military personnel being deployed. There is an ever increasing element of those accounts that has been unusual in the annals of U.S. military history.

It is the fact that many of those deployed have been female. Mothers, wives, fiances, girl friends, employees and executives across the business and finance spectrum have all been part of the call-up.

Although this may be unusual here, it is not throughout most of the globe and world history. That fact was brought home to the Military History Club of Hollin Hall Senior Center last week during a presentation on "Women In the Military."

Recognizing March as "Women In History" Month, Jean Ebbert, author of two books on women in military service, traced the female warrior role from the legendary Amazons to Cleopatra to World War II. She particularly noted, "America is in the minority in historically not permitting women in combat positions."

However, she was quick to point out that defining a combat position is not always easy, particularly in today's conflicts. "In my opinion, if you are in a situation where you are being fired upon by the enemy, you're in a combat situation," she said.

"Today, 15 percent of our armed forces are women. The Air Force has the highest percentage and the Marines the lowest," she noted. "But there are still no women in the infantry, special forces, armored units, or the submarine corps of the Navy."

In today's U.S. military, the number of females by service, according to Ebbert, are: Army 74,000; Air Force 70,000; Navy 56,000; Marines 10,000. "Of that 210,000 total, 33,500 are officers," Ebbert said.

"If women were eliminated from the Navy," she explained, "it would be the equivalent of eliminating the crews of nearly 120 destroyers or that of all the aircraft carriers now in service."

EVEN THOUGH WOMEN, until recent conflicts, have been officially excluded from the battlefield as combatants in U.S. operations, their actual presence in that arena goes well back into U.S. history, according to Ebbert. "During the War of 1812, Lucy Druer became the first female Marine," she said.

"Dr. Mary Walker gave up her medical practice to join the Union Army during the Civil War as a nurse, because doctors had to be male at the time. But she was then named the first woman Army doctor. And she became the first woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor," Ebbert noted.

In 1901, Congress established the U.S. Army Nurse Corps followed by the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. A section of Arlington National Cemetery is dedicated to military nurses. A special statue stands across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honoring the nurses who served in that southeast Asian conflict.

"Seven thousand women served in Vietnam. Seven of them died. Their names are inscribed on The Wall," Ebbert pointed out.

World War II brought about the greatest change in attitude. In March 1942, Congress changed the law affecting women in the military. "Over the next 17 months, 12,000 women enlisted in the Navy. One of those was the mother of film actress Ginger Rogers who was an accomplished film editor," Ebbert said.

"She performed that service for the U.S. Marines, editing thousands of combat photos to be used by the news media. It was some of the goriest footage ever recorded," she said.

FOLLOWING AMERICA'S entrance into World War II, the U.S. Army acted first, July 1942, to recruit women. First known as the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, WAAC's, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered them to drop the word "Auxiliary," stating that they were as much at risk as anyone else. They became known as "WAC's." They were followed by the Navy's equivalent — WAVE's.

"From 1942 until the war's conclusion in September 1945, 200 military nurses were killed in combat. The only exclusion to their enlistment was they could not have children under the age of 18," Ebbert informed. "But more women participated in World War II than in any other time in our history."

Full entitlement of women in the U.S. military occurred in 1948 when Congress passed the Armed Services Women's Integration Act. This law was amended in 1956 and again in 1966. Women were admitted to the U.S. Naval and Air Force academies in 1976.

Ebbert noted, "More than 27,000 women have been deployed in recent military actions. It's not technology that has driven this change. It's social understanding."

To emphasize that point, Ebbert cited the following statistics for women serving in American military conflicts from World War I to Afghanistan and the Iraq wars: WWI - 33,000; WWII - 400,000; Korea 120,000; Vietnam - 7,000; Grenada - 170; Panama - 770; Persian Gulf War - 41,000; Somalia - 1,000; Haiti - 1,200; Bosnia - 15,785; Kosovo - 8,216; Afghanistan and the present Iraq war - still counting.

IN ADDITION TO World War II, Korea, and Vietnam female casualties, there were 13 killed in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and two became POW's. Those numbers for the present Iraq War are also in the "still counting" category.

A 1949 graduate of Albany State College, Ebbert was accepted in Officer Candidate School in 1952. She met her husband, Leigh, at the Pensacola, Fla., Naval Air Station, where he was stationed in 1953. They married in 1954. "We are celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this year," he said proudly seated by her side.

Ebbert's first book, published in 1993, and co-authored by Marie-Beth Hall, "Crossed Currents: Navy Women in a Century of Change," is now in its third printing. The second, also co-authored with Hall, published by the Naval Institute Press, came out in 2002. It is entitled, "The First, The Few, The Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I."

Joining Ebbert for the two hour presentation was Sheila Melville, co-chair of the club and a World War II veteran of the British Navy. "I volunteered for the Navy (British) on my 17th birthday," she said.

"And although I'm delighted that women are in the military service today, I grit my teeth when I hear some of the complaints of women in the service when they get the privilege to actually serve. In the beginning of the Korean War too many women called in sick and didn't go," Melville said.

"I'm also incredibly annoyed when I have lately heard of women military going AWOL and then not being court martialed. You can go through the system to get out if necessary. But you do not go AWOL without consequences," she insisted.

Melville noted that in Great Britain at the commencement of World War II, in the late 1930's, "Everyone, men and women, had to register for National Service on their 16th birthday. It didn't have to be for the military. It could be medical or other areas of service."

The time period between 16 and 18 years of age, "gave you time to decide what you wanted to do," she said. Melville was actually called to active duty six months after she enlisted. "I reported to London for training in 1942," she recalled.

Known as WRN's, Women in the Royal Navy, Melville and her colleagues were trained in air gunnery, she said. During the Normandy Invasion, June 1944, Melville served at a naval base "on the sea wall."

FOLLOWING THE European Theater victory she was transferred to bases in Manchester and Liverpool to aid in preparations for the final attacks on Japan. During her presentation she related a number of stories pertaining to what she characterized as "the social side of being in the British military" during World War II.

Examples ranged from making "midnight requisitions of milk," which was in extreme short supply, to trying to free a U.S. B-17 bomber from the mud at a small base in Dorset, England. It had mistakenly landed at the fighter plane base where the runway was not built for planes the size of B-17's.

"It closed the base for a couple of weeks which left us with nothing to do but get into mischief," she said. The plane had to finally be dismantled in order to remove it, according to Melville.

She emphasized, however, that women were a major part of the British military during World War II. They served in a wide variety of roles in all branches.

Today, the percentage of women in the military in various nations are: New Zealand, 14.7; South Africa, 14.4; Australia, 12.5; Canada 11.6; Russia, 10.1; France, 9.0; Hungary 8.8; United Kingdom, 8.2; and China 6.0.

In the Middle East two of the most noteworthy examples female military personnel are in Jordan and Afghanistan. The senior woman in Jordan's armed forces is Colonel Her Royal Highness Aisha Bint Al Hussein, sister of King Abdullah.

"She is the first Jordanian woman to graduate from the British Military Academy, Sandhurst. In Jordan, about 4,000 women serve, four percent of the total army and air force personnel," according to Ebbert.

"Khatel Muhamadzi is the first woman to reach the rank of general officer in the Afghan Air Force. She had achieved that rank before the Taliban takeover. She was promoted to brigadier general when she returned to active duty following the defeat of the Taliban," Ebbert said.

Although women have been a part of America's military from the Revolution to the present day, a real sea change began with World War II. From Rosie the Riveter, to nurses on the battle field, to officers in the U.S. Marine Corps, the trend continues. Women in the military are present from Baghdad to Bethesda Naval Hospital to Arlington National Cemetery.