In honor of Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate historic women’s achievements, the Veterans History Project (VHP) presents a six-part series of blog posts highlighting the many amazing accomplishments of the women who bravely volunteered for our Armed Services. The following is the fifth post in this series.This year’s National Women’s History Month theme of “Nevertheless, She Persisted” couldn’t be more appropriate for the nearly two million female veterans in the United States, as well as the approximately 6,500 women veterans within the VHP archive. Since the genesis of our nation, women have been courageously volunteering, often when prohibited, in order to join men on the battlefields and defend our liberty. From Deborah Sampson, who served disguised as a man in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment during the American Revolution, to the three women who recently became the first female infantry Marines, women have taken risks, broken records, and shattered gender barriers. Whenever, wherever or whichever branch they served, these intrepid lives shaped the world for future generations. While many of these women’s selfless sacrifice won’t be noted in the pages of traditional history books, because of their decision to share their story with VHP, their stories of resilience will inspire our next generation of heroines.
When you think of the first women permitted to enlist in our military, you may envision the iconic SPARs, WACs, WAVEs, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, and WASPs of the World War II era who took on traditional male roles by enlisting in the military and supporting their country. Even before women were asked to serve in non-combat roles during World War II, nurses and support staff donned the U.S. military uniform in order to patriotically provide aid to soldiers in World War I. Alice Duffield always had a great concern for human rights, and compassion for others. Forgoing a proposal of marriage, Duffield decided to dedicate her life to helping others, and became a captain in the United States Army Nurse Corps. Not for the faint of heart, Duffield quickly learned that only those who were physically, and more importantly, psychologically strong could be a nurse. Emotions ran high during her first few weeks when Duffield couldn’t help a dying patient, but she quickly learned to compose herself and persist in order to help those she still could. When Duffield participated in her VHP interview she was 105 years old, but could still recall vividly the emotions experienced when she helped African-American troops during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and the stunning way she celebrated when the Armistice was signed.
The 1970-80’s TV show M.A.S.H. shined a spotlight on Army medical staff during the Korean War. Although the entry age was 21, this requirement was waved for 18-year-old Nancy Sanchez, who joined the Army Medical Services in 1952. As a Physical Therapist, her first roles were stateside, where she successfully advocated for changing sexist policies and procedures. Thanks to her, female sergeants would no longer be offering massages to the three- and four-star generals stationed at Ft. Myer. In 1970, Sanchez deployed to the Republic of Vietnam, where she was stationed at the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang. During her 18-months in South Vietnam, Sanchez served in a war with no front lines. Sanchez’s two and a half hour oral history includes haunting memories of triage, the complexity of emotions experienced by caring for enemy POWs and discussion of a secret mission to assist Cambodia’s President Lon Nol in recovering from a stroke. Despite the often painful recollections of her time of service with the 95th Evac, Sanchez continues to relay the resounding message of strength of human spirit throughout her oral history stating:
…After the war was over and some thirty years later, I wonder how we got the “guts,” the courage, the stamina, the endurance, the spiritual and physical strength to do all that we did in Vietnam to save lives, to give comfort to those who were dying from their wounds, to count the dead and try to identify them. All of these horrendous things plus all the other horrible things that happened while we were there could bring a person to the point of insanity but no, we never gave up. We never lost our faith and the reason, the purpose of our mission. We never lost our vision of what we could do for our brothers and sisters, for our fellowman. I am saying again and again that the strength ofthe human spirit is beyond description. It kept us going in the right direction in the worst possible times. The human spirit kept us alive so that we kept on doing our mission straight forward and without hesitation but with great hope for a better life to come…not only for us but also for all of those we were leaving behind.
This March, and every month to follow, we honor the courageous women in uniform for their commitment to service and refusal to accept the status quo. Today, women serve as leaders in all branches of the military. We hope that all women veterans proudly acknowledge their accomplishments and share their stories with the world.