Blazing Trails and Taking Names: Women in the Military
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. To begin with the first post, Sharpened Pencils & Sharper Minds: World War II Women Code Breakers, please click here
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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.
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.
Group of Army nurses, Camp McCoy, Wisconsin [October 1944]. Dorothy Margaret Cook Jenkins Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/5724.
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.
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.
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.
Rose Marie Noël holding the shrapnel that was removed from her face. Rose Marie Grosshans Noël Collection, AFC/2001/001/79877.
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.
That is strength.
That is why we salute these women this month, and always.