Starting a military career as a private first class and rising to the rank of colonel is not all that unusual — unless you are a black woman and the time is the early 1950’s. Col. Ethel S. Underwood, USAF (Ret.), not only accomplished that amazing feat but she also became “one of the most decorated women in U.S. Military history,” according to Wilma L. Vaught, brigadier general, USAF (Ret.), and president, Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Last Friday night the Old Town Radisson Hotel ballroom was packed with family, friends, dignitaries and area residents who had come to honor Underwood as Alexandria Senior Services’ “Senior Extraordinaire for 2006.” It was the annual Gala “Honoring the Best.”
Underwood, the first African American woman to achieve the rank of colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve, began her career service as a Registered Nurse. From 1952 to 1985 she served with various military medical units both in the United States and abroad as a member of the Nurse Corps.
“The mere fact that someone who was black and a woman made it to the rank of colonel at that time is incredible. She is proud of her race, proud of being a woman and proud of her military service,” Vaught said in recognizing Underwood for a lifetime of service to her nation and community.
Outlining just some of the difficulties faced by women in the military during the early years of Underwood’s service, Vaught noted, “If a military woman married a man with dependent children she had to resign. If she became pregnant while on active duty she was discharged immediately. And, women were barred from becoming admirals and general because their decision-making capacity might be impaired due to menopause.”
A longtime friend of Underwood, Vaught described her as “outspoken, an activist and willing to serve. She is an extraordinary person who has led an extraordinary life.”
UNDERWOOD SERVED during World War II from 1943 to 1946 as a member of the Women’s Army Corp and then used her GI Bill to become a nurse. She holds a B.S. in Nursing Education and a Masters in Public Health Administration from Columbia University.
After retirement from the military, Underwood became the Director of Nursing at Alexandria’s Woodbine Nursing and Convalescent Center, retiring from there is 1989.
She served for many years on Alexandria’s Commission on Aging and was active in developing the Alexandria Residential Care Home, a 10-bed residential facility that served the elderly population of the city.
Dr. George Pera, a member of the Gala Committee, who was this year’s Master of Ceremonies, said, “I first met our nominee for 2006 Senior Extraordinaire when I went to her home to tell her of the nomination. What amazed me was that there wasn’t an inch of wall space that was not devoted to plaques recognizing her service to a wide range of organizations and causes.”
Among those myriad recognitions were: NAACP Community Service Award; AARP Volunteer of the Year; ACVA Volunteer of the Year; Alfred Street Baptist Church Volunteer Service Award; Northern Virginia Urban League Community Service Award; Alexandria Commission on Aging Excellence in Aging; and the Margaret Payez Leadership Award from the Commission for Women.
Her service on a wide range of Boards of Directors includes being a founding member of the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, Inova Alexandria Hospital, Hopkins House, Executive Committee of the NAACP, and the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black History.
She is also a volunteer at Alexandria’s Black History Museum and a member of a several military officer associations.
In presenting Underwood with an engraved crystal vase, Eileen Longstreet, executive director, Senior Services, read a proclamation from the Virginia General Assembly, House of Delegates, honoring Underwood’s life of service.
That tribute was followed by Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, who said, “I’m honored to be here tonight to pay tribute to one of the really beautiful people of Alexandria. I have looked up to Ethel over the years as a role model.” He then presented her with a key to the city.
IN ACCEPTING THE ACCOLADES, Underwood told the crowd that included members of her family from New York, “I’m still a little awed when I’m honored for doing the things I have enjoyed doing. Credit has never been and, will hopefully, never be, a monitoring factor for me.”
Citing Acts 20:35, Underwood said, “It is more blessed to give than receive. But, tonight I accept your gift and thank you.” She was also presented with a plaque of recognition from Alfred Street Baptist Church for her service to them.
In thanking her family for making the trip from “the Big Apple,” as she phrased it, to her “church family” and her “Alexandria family,” Underwood quoted her motto for life, “Much can be accomplished if we do not worry about who gets the credit.”
In addition to presenting their “Senior Extraordinaire” award, the evening included a silent auction to raise funds for the organization’s various programs as well as dinner and dancing.
Senior Services President Susan S. Winn said, “This is not an easy event to stage,” as she thanked the organizers and the Gala Committee, co-chaired by Joan M. Richardson and Ruby Tucker.