Women veterans Essay

This remarkable book is worth reading on several counts. Among
them is the fact that noting as comprehesive about women veteran exists
in print. Also, the military and post-military experiences of these
women illustrate that without even knowing it, many were pioneers in
redefining women’s role in contemporary society.

June A. Willenz decided to write this book after spending 20 years
in the veteran’s field of study and wondering where the women
veterans were and why they were not visible. She discovered that
officially there were 1.2 million women veterans as of April 1982 but
could find on further Government statistics about them, nor any academic
studies. Why is it, she asks, that neither the dedication nor
willingness of over a million women to give themselves to their country
was included in veterans’ literature or official reports?

We are fortunate that Willenz persevered in completing this book,
for she does a superb job of pushing aside many myths and stereotypes
and providing the reader with solidly based historical material on
women’s formal and informal participation in U.S. military service
since Colonial times. This is followed by richly detailed profiles of
individual women who served in the military at some time between the
1940’s and 1970’s, emphasizing what happened to them when they
returned to civilian life. The book concludes with a description of the
current situation for women veterans, including their medical,
educational, and other benefits, and several government policy

The chapter devoted to historical background points out that
women’s official participation in the Armed Forces began with the
formation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, followed by the Navy Nurse
Corps in 1903. Women, however, have had roles with the military
services, if not in the services, since our county was founded. The
support services and even more direct roles women provided in the Army
and militia units of the Revolutionary War are often overlooked in the
literature on that largely guerilla war. George Washington’s
“Women of the Army” served as nurses and orderlies in his
often chaotic hospital system and also did washing, cooking, and
mending, frequently riding in baggage wagons much to his consternation.
Other women served as water carries for artillery units, an essential
function because after a cannon was fired, it had to be swabbed with
water before it was reloaded. It turns out that “Molly
Pitcher” was not a single woman, but repesented a group of women,
much like “GI Joe” represented American soldiers during World
War II.

The historical chapter also recounts many equally fascinating
events and anecdotes from the War of 1812 and the Civil and Spanish
American Wars. World War I is reviewed as the first war in which women
were actually recruited into the military services other than the Nurse
Corps. While nurses remained the most numerous group in the services,
the Navy recruited women to serve as Naval Reserve Yeomen, filling
mostly clerical and administrative jobs. Also, a very small number of
women served in the Marine Reserve, performing clerical duties and doing
some messenger and recruiting work. Willenz contends that one of the
by-products of women’s World War I military activities was the
passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which
gave women the opportunity to vote in national elections.

Less than 25 years later, the outbreak of World War II produced the
same need for women’s participation in both the civilian and
military sectors. What transpired reflects society’s view of women
at the time. Their entry into military service is described as meeting
strong resistance from the War Department, Congress, and society in
general. It took from 1941 to 1942 for the bill authorizing the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) to be passed. Recruiters were then
faced with the fact that although patriotism was the overwhelming
sentiment across the country, there was no great enthusiasm in most
families to send their daughters off to war. Recruiters had to promise
that new skills and training would be available to those who signed up.

Willenz does well in characterizing the times. “Young women
with high school educations were likely to be engaged in routine
clerical positions or in unskilled factory jobs. They were easily
impressed by the new kinds of experience the services were publicizing.
The film industry, meanwhile, was turning out romanticized verious of
what war was like, shrouding its realities in Hollywood tinsel.” .
. . “As was true with many men, there were those who enlisted
because of personal trauma, the loss of a loved one, or the breakup of a
romance. Certainly the sense of adventure motivated some young
women.” . . . “Signing up for military service was an
acceptable means of going out into the world. It was a permissible way
for a woman to spread her wings and contribute to the national
purpose.” Some women joined because they had special skills, such
as nurses, or were older women with professional training and
experience, such as writers, broadcasters, public relations workers,
teachers, linguists, scientists, and engineers. Most of these latter
women became offiers, even if they didn’t initially enter as

Willenz maintains that World War II was the last one for which
patriotism was the dominant reason for going into the military. Neither
the Korean nor Vietman War was popular, and with Vietman, the
disinterest was compounded by the hostility of large segments of the
population toward the war. During the 1970’s, the All Volunteer
Force changed the character of the military services to an occupational
model. Since then, Willenz believes that the major attractions for both
men and women have been job possibilities and post-service benefits.

A 100-page section of the book, entitled Profiles, consists of the
compelling personal stories of women aviators, the mechanically
inclined, the adventurers, the ones who sought and got specific
training, the dreamers, and the disappointed. Included are interviews
with over 20 women veterans whose collective military service spans the
years from World War II through the post-Vietnam era. We meet women who
extol their participation, while others criticize the racial barriers or
are bitter about the indignities of communal living and their often
sex-segregated assignments and training. Some allowed their real names
to be used, such as Sarah McClendon, currently a Washington journalist.
There are stories of “bad apples” in the barracks and of being
the object of deeply rooted prejudice against servicewomen, especially
in the South. Some women say that they still don’t let most people
know they are veterans.

In another section of the book, the service-related benefits
received by women veterans are described as ranging from very little for
the majority of World War II veterans to close to parity for those who
served during the Vietnam War or afterwards. Based on her research and
interviews. Willenz believes that most women veterans of World War II
probably did not use their GI Bill benefits because such a great number
married and raised families and had neither the time, energy, nor
inclination to use them. This, of course, is all speculation because no
data exist on the subject. Willenz states that it seems unlikely that
we will ever be able to determine how meaningful the GI Bill was to the
World War II servicewomen, “because the Veterans Administration
(VA) kept only a 2-percent sampling of information on all veterans.
Since women were less than 2 percent of the Armed Forces, they fell by
the wayside in VA sampling procedures.”

Health and hospital care are described as by far the weakest, most
deficient, and for many years, practically undeliverable benefits to
which women veterans were entitled. In theory, female veterans were
always entitled to the same medical benefits as male veterans; in
practice, this entitlement was given short shrift. Willenz points out
that from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, nearly all VA
hospitals lacked facilities for women veterans. Moreover, these women
were virtually disregarded as outpatients. That the situation has
changed somewhat since 1970, especially for post-Vietnam veterans, only
became known in 1982 when the VA published the first report in VA
history on “Women Veterans Usage of VA Hospital Facilities.”
(This report was updated by the VA in 1984.)

Willenz sees today’s situation as one in which women who
served in the Armed Forces are emerging out of a long period of
isolation and neglect to achieve legitimacy as veterans. They are
becoming visible in the media and are finally being heard by government
agencies that are supposed to service them. Policymakers have heard
women veterans speak out about the Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling program, exposure to Agent Orange, obtaining spousal and
pregnancy benefits, and receiving the same treatment men receive in the
VA medical system for nonservice connected health problems. (Most VA
medical treatment for male veterans today is for nonservice connected
problems.) Also, in contrast to women veterans in the past, who tended
to shun general veterans organizations and to join specific groups like
the WAC Veterans or the Women Marines, if they joined at all, those who
served during the Vietnam conflict have been joining veterans
organizations in sizable numbers.

The book concludes with a warming that the current trend of
interest in women veterans will come to nothing unless it is translated
into public policy, and a plea that the VA continue its relatively new
Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.


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