Go to Main Page

Go to Today's Top News

Go to Washington World

Go to Home Page


Six Military Women And Six U.S. Wars

Saturday, October 18, 1997; Page A13
The Washington Post

Duty. Honor. Pride. Patriotism.

A common current flows through the lives of the nation's 1.8 million women veterans: When their country needed them, they stepped forward without hesitation.

Some broke barriers and accomplished noteworthy deeds. Others were cloaked in ordinariness, their service and sacrifice little noted by contemporaries but recognized now by a grateful nation with today's dedication of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

Here are just a handful of their stories. But they speak for all who answered the call.

Mary Edwards Walker - Civil War

Seventy-eight years after her death, people still get riled up about Mary Edwards Walker.

Was she a capable and intelligent physician, as some of her Civil War contemporaries maintained? Or was she -- to quote an 1864 medical panel -- "utterly unqualified," with a knowledge of medicine "not much greater than most housewives"?

Because she was a Union doctor who also ministered to Southern civilians, some suspected Walker was a spy. But for which side?

She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award, presented by President Andrew Johnson in 1866 for "meritorious service." Supporters say her honor was unfairly taken away (along with the medals of 910 others) in 1917 when Congress tightened the eligibility requirements.

Today, 20 years after an Army board reinstated Walker's medal posthumously -- citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex" -- critics still claim she didn't deserve the honor.

A relative told the New York Times: "Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it."

She was born in 1832 into an abolitionist family in Oswego, N.Y. Her father, a country doctor, believed strongly in education and equality for his seven daughters. He also believed they were hampered by the tight-fitting women's clothing of the day, a belief that Mary passionately espoused.

She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in June 1855, the only woman in her class. A year later, she married a classmate (the bride wore trousers, a man's coat and kept her own name). They were divorced 13 years later.

When war broke out, she came to Washington and tried to join the Union Army. Denied a commission as a medical officer, she volunteered anyway, serving as an acting assistant surgeon -- the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army.

In 1864, Walker was captured by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond for four months until she was exchanged, with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.

She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Afterward, she got a monthly pension of $8.50, subsequently raised to $20, but still less than some widows' pensions.

After the war, she became a writer and lecturer on women's rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. Tobacco, she said, resulted in paralysis and insanity. Women's clothing, she said, was immodest and inconvenient.

She toured here and abroad, often lecturing in full men's evening dress, which led one reporter to call her "that curious anthropoid."

She refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death in 1919.

-- Marylou Tousignant

Frieda Hardin - World War I

Frieda Hardin is 101 now, but she can still vividly recall a Saturday night in 1918 when her family was gathered around the dinner table in Portsmouth, Ohio. Her father, a scrap yard foreman for the railroad, was discussing the fact that the Navy was recruiting women.

"That's for me!" Hardin, who was then Frieda Greene and 22, piped up.

Nobody paid much attention to her -- not, that is, until the following Monday, when she signed up for the United States Naval Reserve Force and then phoned to tell her mother.

"Mamma, I just joined the Navy!" she said.

"Frieda, you come right home!" her mother, Rose Greene, exclaimed.

"Mamma was awfully embarrassed to have me join the Navy," Hardin recalled. "It was unheard of for women."

Women couldn't even vote then, and her mother informed the Navy recruiting officer that "this girl is not going!" But he gently asked how Frieda's father, George Greene, felt about it. When they told her father, he said, "Let her go!"

And off she went, on an adventure that eventually would lead the World War I veteran to Washington -- 79 years later -- for the dedication of the first memorial for women in the armed forces. Although she is nervous, Hardin is going to try today to give a speech, which she has been practicing at her nursing home in Livermore, Calif.

Hardin flew to Washington on Thursday with her children, Warren, 69; Mary, 76; and Jerry, 73. (Roy, 70, did not make the trip.) She was given a standing ovation on the plane and a bottle of champagne, but she's never had an alcoholic drink in her life.

In an interview Thursday night, Hardin recalled her active duty in Norfolk, where she was a Yeomen Third Class (F), known as a "Yeomanette." Her job was to check dock receipts in the freight office. She was paid $41 a month, plus $2 a day for living expenses. Because there was no housing for women, she lived in a boardinghouse in town. Although the work itself was boring, she says, the women were treated very well.

She was proud of her Navy job because she felt she was helping her country. Before that, she was a salesclerk in a five-and-dime store. "Anybody can work in a dime store," Hardin said. "It takes a smart person to work in the Navy."

Her children say she has had a wonderful life, with 26 great-great-grandchildren and four husbands along the way. Her only frustration now is that she can't hear very well. She hopes others can hear her today.

"It is not likely that I will be meeting with you again, so I bid each of you a fond farewell," she plans to tell the crowd. "God bless the United States Navy, and God bless America!"

-- Patricia Davis

Charity Adams Earley - World War II

The strict Army discipline was the thing that Charity Adams Earley valued most: Discipline to do the calisthenics that were part of her military training in World War II. Discipline to endure segregation there, as a woman and as a black American.

She had to have poise. Upon her had fallen the task of commanding the only black Women's Army Corps unit -- 800 enlisted women and 30 officers -- to go overseas.

"It taught me stronger self-discipline," Earley said as she reflected on today's dedication of the women's military memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. "I was rather well-disciplined at first, because I had that kind of family. But doing what I needed to do, when it needed to be done -- I learned to value that."

She was working on her master's degree in education when her country asked her, in July 1942, to serve in the Good War. Earley, 78, who now lives in Dayton, Ohio, didn't spend any time weighing the matter, what with the newfound prominence women were enjoying in the military. But she worried.

"In those days, by this time, women were going into the military, women were going to work who had never worked before, in factories and so on, and so this was another war effort and we didn't know exactly whether it was going to work," said Earley.

"We were told that the women would do the jobs that would replace the men who were going to the front. You didn't know what you were going to do once you got there."

She became an officer, with the rank of major. Her task was to reorganize the post office for the European Theater so that mail reached the troops promptly. The best system, she decided, would be the same one used in the civilian world. She would keep addresses on file. Whenever troops moved, they would send in a change-of-address card.

Earley and her battalion of 830 women sorted mail in England and closer to the front lines in France. They were relatively safe, Earley said, and their minds were occupied by other things. They lived in segregated barracks, ate in segregated dining halls. The only thing that was not segregated, Earley said, was the exercise field.

"We didn't mix it up," she said. "We were segregated two ways, because we were black and because we were women. Oh, we laugh about some of the things that happened. We have our memories about the good things and the bad things."

The war years stayed with Earley through jobs as dean of students at Tennessee A&I University and later at Georgia State College in Savannah. She married Stanley Earley, a doctor, and had two children. She published her memoir, "One Woman's Army," in 1989 and still travels occasionally for book signings.

"Somebody had to talk about it and tell what happened to women in World War II," Earley said. "I kept waiting and waiting and then I decided, if you want something done, you do it yourself."

-- Jennifer Lenhart

Mary Therese Burley - Korean War

On the morning after her high school graduation in Flint, Mich., in June 1944, Mary Therese Burley marched downtown to the U.S. Army recruiting office and declared herself ready to enlist. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh in the teenager's mind.

Only 16, she was gently rejected and advised to come back when she was older.

Her resume included only one summer as a volunteer nurse's aide in her hometown hospital. But what she did have was the desire to nurse the sick and serve her country. Within a few years, she would get her chance.

Burley went on to attend the Cadet Nurse Corps program, and in December 1951, she entered the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a first lieutenant. In April 1953, she boarded a ship to Korea, where she worked in the 48th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) northwest of Seoul for 15 months.

"I knew I could be of help if I could just get there," said Burley, now a 69-year-old retiree who volunteers at a veterans hospital in Saginaw, Mich.

As an Army nurse, Burley treated mostly soldiers suffering from the deadly viral ailment called hemorrhagic fever, she said. The illness began innocently enough, giving soldiers the achy, feverish, red-eyed symptoms of the flu. But the virus ravaged their kidneys.

"When I got there, it had kind of stabilized . . . but nobody knew how to cure it," Burley said. During her tour in Korea, she worked with what was then one of the medical wonders of the world: an artificial kidney.

"The first patient I saw who went on the kidney was near death when he was evac'd out," she wrote in a reminiscence for the foundation that built the women's memorial. "On his return, the next a.m., he sat up in bed and read a magazine!"

Burley, along with the other two dozen doctors and nurses of her unit, was shipped out of Seoul in September 1954, when the hospital was turned over to Korean troops.

She was reassigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where she worked as a medical-surgical nurse and earned her captain's bars. In November 1957, Burley left active duty.

More than four decades have passed since she tended to the sick soldiers of the Korean War. But the sounds, the smells and the sense of that time are still with her.

Gunfire that pierced the still of night. The squat potbellied stoves that warmed the drafty corners of the cement-slab hospital. The noxious odor of the manure used by Koreans to fertilize their fields. The hours she spent crying in frustration that not every boy could be saved.

"I had no idea what it was like, none of us did," Burley said. "All we knew was that we were needed."

Burley plans to attend today's dedication, having earned her place in history in a war thousands of miles away in Asia. But even there she was at home.

"Every morning when you walked out and saw that flag, boy, I tell you," she said. "The hospital was surrounded by American flags on poles and it was so beautiful. That was home."

-- Sylvia Moreno

Catherine Kocourek Genovese - Vietnam War

One of the most vivid memories for retired Capt. Catherine Kocourek Genovese is the winter day she abandoned plans to become a teacher and instead worked her way through a throng of Vietnam War protesters to join the Marine Corps.

Genovese was earning a teaching degree at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. One day she saw the crowd of students, dressed in black with death masks painted on their faces, taunting a pair of Marines who had set up a recruiting display in the student union.

"It was a moment of clarity," said Genovese, 48, who now lives in Redwood City, Calif. "I had never really thought of joining, but I guess it was always in the back of my mind. I saw the recruiter and said this is it."

Genovese said she was certain she made the right choice by joining the military during a war that had claimed the lives of several high school classmates.

"In my own mind I was more of a rebel by going against my peer group," she said.

Genovese comes from a family with a tradition of military service. Her father was a Naval Reserve officer, and her mother a Navy nurse. One aunt served as a Marine officer and another was a Navy nurse.

"My view of the military for women was that it was a fantastic career," Genovese said. "Those women had more responsibility than other women I knew."

While she never went to the front lines of the war, her service brought rigorous physical training and assignments that tested her resolve.

As a young commanding officer at a base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., Genovese said, she quickly came up against a group of male recruits who refused to salute her. After a quick lesson in Marine etiquette, she said, it never happened again.

"These guys were tough," Genovese said. "It wasn't easy to confront a group like that. But after that, even if they were half a block away, they'd salute and say, `Good morning, ma'am.' "

At 22, Genovese became the first female Marine to pass a pistol marksmanship test and earn the second-highest ranking as a sharpshooter. She broke more ground by becoming the first woman assigned to a weapons training battalion.

Genovese left the service after her husband, a Marine she first saw during Christmas dinner at a mess hall, took a civilian job.

"I wanted to stay in the Marine Corps so badly, but I was married and that came first," Genovese said. "It broke my heart when I had to resign. But my time in the Marine Corps is still the most exciting period in my life."

-- Maria Glod

Melissa Coleman - Persian Gulf War

One hundred and seven days after Army Spec. Melissa Coleman began her service in the Persian Gulf, she found herself captured by the enemy, shot twice in the arm and headed to a Baghdad prison cell. On the way, the Iraqis pulled a hat over her eyes to blind her. Then her seatmate, an Iraqi soldier, kept reaching into her raincoat to touch her breasts.

"Finally, I just reached across and hit him," she said. "Needless to say, he wasn't exactly pleased."

He did, however, leave the 20-year-old alone after that, allowing her to reach her 12-foot-square concrete prison cell in relative peace.

She would spend the next 33 days there, bathing once a week using a garbage can full of hot water.

Coleman was one of two U.S. women prisoners of war during Operation Desert Storm, and one of 41,000 American military women involved in the 1990-1991 engagement, making it the largest deployment of women in U.S. history.

Her job was to transport heavy equipment to the front line. As she was moving a tractor-trailer, her convoy missed a turn, unwittingly driving into the captured Saudi city of Khafji. Iraqi soldiers fired at the vehicle she and fellow Army Spec. David Lockett were in, and as they tried to flee on foot, both were wounded.

While in the Baghdad prison, there were frequent U.S. air raids over the Iraqi capital that left Coleman wondering whether she would get out alive.

"I thought, `I didn't die by the Iraqi's own hands, but my own people are going to bomb me,' " she said.

She said she later received kinder treatment from her captors. They allowed her to walk freely throughout part of the prison, fed her well enough that she lost no weight -- a stark contrast to Lockett and other male prisoners -- played basketball and kickball with her, and checked on her after air raids.

Coleman attributed the careful treatment to the fact that she was a woman. "Whenever I was interrogated, the major would just say, `She knows nothing. She's a female,' " she said.

Today, Coleman is married with two children and working on a college degree in San Antonio. She views the experience as little more than a short chapter in her life story.

"For me, it was like, okay, so that happened," she said. "Let's get over it and move on."

-- Ann O'Hanlon

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top


Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!