INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — When Billie Gammill joined the Air Force in 1973, women were given makeup lessons as part of basic training.
She wasn’t issued a set of fatigues until she was stationed in Turkey as a Morse code operator.
Forty years later, on the same day that outgoing Defense Sec. Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat — Gammill was installed as commander of Kansas City’s first all-female American Legion Post.
Heartland Women Veterans Post 1107 — the number’s for Nov. 7, the date of the group’s inception — already has at least 50 members, Gammill told me. They range from a woman who served in World War II to “20-somethings” from recent conflicts. (The post is open to men if any want to join.)
There are 14,000 American Legion posts with 2.4 million members around the world, according to Matthew Herndon, deputy director in the membership division of the American Legion’s headquarters in Indianapolis. Women have been able to join the American Legion since 1919, a year before they had the right to vote. The Legion is one of the four largest service organizations devoted to the needs of veterans, and membership is limited to those who served in the military (with honorable discharge) during specific times of war.
But the American Legion doesn’t keep track of how many members are women, Herndon told me, nor how many American Legion posts are primarily for female veterans. Post 1107 is the second for the state of Missouri. Post 404, in St. Louis, was chartered in 1946 as women returned home from World War II and now has
nearly 300 members; several of their officers have helped Post 1107 get organized.
One of Post 404’s service activities is “The Girlfriends Project,” which provides “telephone buddies, confidants and nonjudgmental listeners” for women returning to civilian life from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Post 644 in Cincinnati is another group founded after World War II for women. Its Web site lists fewer than a dozen American Legion posts around the country primarily for women, including one in Pine Ridge, S.D. for Oglala Lakota (Sioux).
“The biggest benefit to many veterans isn’t getting a discount on rental cars but the camaraderie of sitting around with other veterans,” Herndon said to me about the appeal of the American Legion.
Women vets want that camaraderie as well, but they’re looking for a place where they can talk to one another about the issues unique to them. “It’s a place where women can comment on women’s issues,” Lowry Finley-Jackson, assistant adjutant for the American Legion Department of Missouri, said about all-female Legion posts.
This is not your father’s American Legion.
“Guys don’t want to talk about PTSD from sexual trauma, and it’s easier for the ladies to talk to other ladies about issues like this,” Finley-Jackson said. Approximately 13 to 20 percent of servicewomen have been sexually assaulted, according to studies by the Veterans Administration.
“It’s a sisterhood more than anything else,” Finley-Jackson told me. That’s a potentially large sisterhood, with more than 1.8 million women veterans of the Armed Forces and with 15 percent of active duty military personnel women.
Military women are making headlines, with the ban on combat lifted and the election of two female vets to Congress. “We want to make this the year of the woman veteran,” Gammill said. “We’re out there to get things done for women, but we’re not stepping over the men to do it.”
Service to the community is part of the mission for American Legion posts; they sponsor scholarships and programs like Boys’ and Girls’ State to teach high school students about government; and activities for veterans, from welcome-home parades to bingo games. Gammill said members of Post 1107 are interested in creating “Acting Grannies” to provide childcare for women vets at the soon-to-open women’s health annex to the VA Hospital in Kansas City.
Post 1107 will look for a permanent meeting place as well, but for now it is using Post 21 — Pres. Harry Truman’s old post. Their plans include forming a color guard to represent the post at the 20th anniversary of the Women in Military Service Memorial at Arlington Cemetery.
But it’s the little things that have helped make Gammill appreciate the new post. When another woman veteran mentioned “blousing” her shirt — a term used in the military — the lingo brought good memories, Gammill said. “It’s like coming back to your family you’ve lost.”
“It’s been so long since we’ve had a listener for our stories,” Gammill said to me.
In a local television interview, Air Force veteran and Post 1107 chaplain Danielle Edwards summed up her feelings: “This is home. This is where I’m meant to be.”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.