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A Band Apart: The Veterans History Project Features Women at War

The following is a guest post by Owen Rogers, liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).

Looking back on my childhood in rural Connecticut, I was fortunate to have grandparents who lived just a few houses away. One of my favorite pastimes was to move from room to room in their house, pointing out old photographs and then listening to them share stories of their young life together. I thought it was incredible to imagine them at a time when they were younger than “mom and dad.” Through images of the New Year’s Eve party at which they met to an overnight train ride to their wedding in Vermont, they chronicled their lives. If either of them had been a few years older during World War II, however, the context of these photographs – and perhaps their life together – may have shifted entirely.

Service portrait of Mary Elizabeth Lefebre nee Shuler. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/74475.

Service portrait of Mary Elizabeth Lefebre nee Shuler. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/74475.

Years later, as a graduate student assigned to the Central Connecticut State University Veterans History Project, I knocked on the door of Mary Lefebre to interview her. Entering her home, I experienced the same celebration of life through images. Poring through a familiar chronology of family vacations and grandchildren, a meaningful contrast emerged as Lefebre’s olive drab took the place of the homecoming gowns I had seen in my grandmother’s photographs, and I couldn’t overlook the polished pair of Captain’s bars sparkling in Lefebre’s living room.

(L-R) Mary Lefebre and Sylvia Paulovich in Italy, November, 1944. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/74475.

(L-R) Mary Lefebre and Sylvia Paulovich in Italy, November, 1944. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/74475.

Lefebre, nee Schuler, is one of the approximately 65,000 women, at times serving in harm’s way and under fire, who pledged their service as uniformed nurses of the U.S. Army, Army Air Force and Navy. Her World War II service saw Mediterranean deployments to the 79th Station Hospital in Oran, North Africa and the 26th General Hospital in Bari, Italy. There, medical staff treated soldiers recently wounded at the front lines. Lefebre recalled that the hospitals were sited so close to combat operations that,

We got a direct hit in our hospital one night, and one of the patients was killed. When we were operating, we kept moving down lower and lower. Finally, we stopped operating, and we put the patients on the floor and turned the operating room tables up on the sides, the metal ones, to protect the patients. We all just had to lie flat on the floor until morning. When daylight came, you could see the holes in the tent from the shrapnel.

VHP comprises nearly 6,000 female narrators who, like Lefebre, speak to the firsthand experiences of serving in the United States military from World War I through the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Visit www.loc.gov/vets to access their collections.

As part of VHP’s commemoration of Women’s History Month, join us for these upcoming events, both of which are free and open to the public.

Attend the upcoming discussion panel, “A Band Apart: Women at War,” on Monday, March 21st at 12pm in Whitthall Pavilion, located on the ground floor of the Library’s Jefferson Building. Moderated by Professor Elizabeth Samet of the United States Military Academy, a subject matter expert on “Soldier’s Heart” and PTSD, the panel will feature women veterans who are experts in their fields.

On Wednesday, March 23rd at 2pm (ET), join VHP staff Megan Harris and Rachel Mears for a webcast as they share the stories of female veterans documented in their own words and voices. Register at //www.loc.gov/rr/program/web-discussions_form.php.

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