Character, courage, commitment [Commentary]

American women have a long history of serving the nation through the military

March 25, 2014|By Phyllis Wilson

Throughout the month of March, we celebrate the history of American women whose contributions blazed trails for women's empowerment and equality. We look to the past to commemorate their stalwart determination to break down barriers in the face of adversity; and we look to the future as we continue this legacy of our mothers and grandmothers.

Against social convention and often legal restraints, women have created a legacy that expands the frontiers of possibility for generations to come. They have demonstrated their "character, courage and commitment" — this year's theme for Women's History Month — as soldiers, mothers, educators, relief workers and leaders in the worlds of business, labor, politics and religion. Their example inspires others and encourages boys and men to respect the diversity and depth of women's experience.

The character, commitment and courage of women have been demonstrated time and time again in the defense of this nation's principles and interests. They have served in the United States Army since the American Revolutionary War in 1775, both uniformed and civilian, with distinction in every war this nation has ever fought. They tended the sick, mended clothes, served as spies and even armed cannons on the battlefield.

During the attack on Fort Washington, N.Y. in 1776, Margaret Corbin served as her husband's ammunition handler, standing by his side. When he was fatally wounded, she immediately took his place at the cannon until she was also wounded.

In 1782, at 22 years of age, Deborah Sampson became the first woman known to enlist as a soldier in the American Army. She put on male clothing, adopted the name Robert Shurtliff and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Sampson was wounded in her left thigh during the Battle of Tarrytown in New York, and, to keep her secret safe, she treated herself.

Eighty years later, during the U.S. Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker served as assistant surgeon with Gen. Ambrose Burnside's Union forces. She was captured by Confederates in Chattanooga, Tenn. and imprisoned in Richmond, Va. as a spy. Eventually, she was released and returned to serve as a hospital surgeon at a women's prisoner-of-war hospital in Louisville, Ky. After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker is the only woman to have been awarded this highest honor.

A great deal has changed in the 145 years since the Civil War. The move to the "all-volunteer force" led the Army to begin recruiting women aggressively for the reserve components. As with the active force, recruiting, training and opportunities improved for women. By the end of September 1978, the Army Reserve had approximately 25,000 members of the Women's Army Corps, which was the women's branch of the United States Army, and the Army National Guard had over 13,000.

Women were certainly ready, willing and able to meet the needs of our nation, be it in their backyards or overseas, even though opportunities to do so were not as prevalent as they are today.

And the number of women serving in the Army continues to grow, even though any deployed soldier —regardless of their gender, military specialty or unit mission — may find themselves in hostile action.

Today, the Army Reserve's mission benefits from the leadership, resiliency and technical proficiency of over 45,000 female soldiers — 22 percent of the Reserve force. This includes approximately 36,000 enlisted, 8,000 officers and 500 warrants in 305 diverse career fields. Our team must maintain its combat edge during this period of persistent conflict and constrained resources; this would not be possible without the contributions of its female soldiers.

We must carry on the work of the women who came before us and ensure our daughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements and no remaining ceilings to shatter as they continue to serve as the strength of the Army Reserve and the strength of the nation.

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