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Blazing Trails and Taking Names: Women in the Military

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The following is the second post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month.

(Note: Due to the closure of all DC-area Federal Government buildings on March 2, 2018, the Women’s History Month book talk  featuring Liza Mundy  has been canceled. Stay tuned for updates.)

Black and white photo of women in uniform standing at attention.  Women are in black uniform with white uniform nurses on either end.
Group of Army nurses, Camp McCoy, Wisconsin [October 1944]. Dorothy Margaret Cook Jenkins Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/5724.
Since the first battle was fought, they’ve been there. Women in the military have emerged from only being allowed to work as spies or in traditional support capacities, such as cooks and nurses, to becoming pilots, drivers and mechanics, to now fighting alongside their male counterparts in combat.

Sign with American flag that says "There is a Wave from this family in the Navy"
Sign to be hung in a window of a WAVE family home. Gladys Marsheck Echols Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/26792.

Some were the first young woman in their family to ever leave the safety and comfort of home, and set out for the unknown adventures—not to mention dangers—of life in the military. Along with their new uniforms, short haircuts and way of life, came new cohorts with whom they could share both humorous and challenging experiences. Many survived sexual trauma and harassment from the very men assigned to be their leaders. Too many times, these crimes and mistreatment went unreported for fear of retaliation. Nonetheless, women in the military have always found a way to persevere against all odds. They continue to make major contributions in service to our nation, and for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Black and white photo of woman in uniform and cap.
Martha Putney in uniform. Martha Settle Putney Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/12523.

Martha Putney refused to let others’ suppositions about her worth as a woman, or as an African-American service member, discourage her from doing anything she wanted. She had already earned her Master’s degree from Howard University by the time she entered a segregated Women’s Army Corps during World War II.  Even though she was an officer, she still faced disrespect and harassment from white colleagues as well as civilians.

During her VHP interview, recorded when she was nearly 90 years old, Putney shares an encounter she had with a white, racist bunkmate who treated her with disdain, calling her “the n-word” multiple times. The woman eventually was forced to make an apology, although Putney was incredulous at its phrasing.

I didn’t know they let you kids in here with us…If my mother knew I was sleeping with you people, she’d want me to come home.

Putney quickly retorted at a volume only her nemesis could hear, “I suggest that you do what your mother would want you to do to feel comfortable.” Not surprisingly, life in the barracks soon took a slight turn for the better. After war’s end, Putney used the G.I. Bill to earn her Ph.D., and went on to live an even more successful life.

That is resilience.

Color photo of woman gritting her teeth as she hits a punching bag with red boxing gloves.
Purple Heart recipient Rose Marie Noël learning to box. Rose Marie Grosshans Noël Collection, AFC/2001/001/79877.

When you think of Purple Heart recipients, you likely visualize male veterans, possibly with visible scars or missing limbs. I’d like to offer this image as one you can add to your mind’s eye.

As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Rose Marie Grosshans Noël made history by becoming the first female Gunnery Sergeant to be awarded the Purple Heart. In 2005, while serving in Iraq, an indirect fired rocket impacted about 100 meters from where she was riding a bike. Noël was left with shrapnel in her cheek, landing only millimeters away from a main artery in her face, and a traumatic brain injury. She would later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

You might assume that those injuries were enough to cause Noël to end her military career right away. You would be wrong. Even with a broken jaw, a determined Noël rejoined her fellow Marines and finished the last five months of her tour of duty. In her VHP interview, she states matter-of-factly:

Rosie would have loved to have gone home, but Rosie wasn’t in Iraq. Gunny Noël was.

Color photo of woman in hospital bed holding up two items.  Her cheek is bandaged.
Rose Marie Noël holding the shrapnel that was removed from her face. Rose Marie Grosshans Noël Collection, AFC/2001/001/79877.

That is strength.

That is why we salute these women this month, and always.

Comments (4)

  1. WAY Cool! Thanks for highlighting these amazing members of our military!

  2. Hats off to these wonderful women veterans!

  3. I served in the Navy 1961-1966 and though I was the first woman at NAS Brunswick, ME to go to training courses which were only for men no seems to care. I was in Survivor school, I had to learn how to put out a fire at the fire department and every class I went to the instructor asked me how I got ihe class. Well look at my name. Urban, Quinn E. That’s how.
    Then I am married to a retired Navy person and I decided after he passed I would like to have a VA card. After all I am a Veteran– and it was like pulling teeth to get one. I can’t have this or can have this but can’t have this. I have PTSD over an issue that happened to me in Norfolk so I go to a civilian counselor that seemingly knows all about PTSD but she damn sure doesn’t know about my kind. And the VA tells me that I can’t get this and get that. I am also one of the MST people but guess what?? So I went to the VA on line and that is a mess of shit in my opinion. I am 76 years old so guess I will just have to be.

    • Dear Ms. Urban DAhlstrom,
      Thank you for reading, and for your comment, as perspectives and experiences such as yours are vitally important to hear about and understand. VHP values all veterans’ stories, and to that end, we would encourage you to consider sharing your own story with us in an oral history or a written memoir, or through original material such as photographs, letters, or military papers. If you’re interested, please get in touch with us at [email protected]. Thank you once again for your thoughts, and for your service.

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