Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 4, 2014

Honoring those who paved the way

— “Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom. That our resolve was just as great as the brave men who stood among us. And with victory, our hearts were just as full and beat just as fast — that the tears fell just as hard for those we left behind.” Anne Sosh Brehm, 1st Lieutenant, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, World War II

My 4-foot-8-inch tall 89-year-old mother-in-law is a former U.S. Marine. When she enlisted in Boston in 1949, “I cheated,” she admits. “They gave you a hospital gown, a ‘Johnnie,’ but it pooled on the ground because it was very long for me.” So she stood on her tippy toes to slip through the height requirement. When they realized she was too short, the U.S. government gave her a waiver because she could type about 65 words per minute and write 150 words per minute in shorthand.

In 1948, women were officially integrated into all United States Armed Forces. Pvt. Margaret Masters was in only the second class of women who entered as regular Marines, rather than Marine Reserves. “They didn’t know what to do with us,” she said. “They knew they couldn’t treat us as harsh as the boys back in those days. We were only going to work in an office, not in the field like they do today.” The recruitment poster aimed at women that captured her attention read, “Be a Marine. Free a Marine to fight.” She agrees enlisting was a pretty unusual career move for an accomplished 25-year-old woman holding a private sector job that would now be called an executive secretary or executive assistant. Her boss refused to release her to join the military during World War II. “He said he wouldn’t let his daughter go, so he wouldn’t let me go either.” But she kept pushing him after the war ended and picked the Marines, “because they were tough ... and who looks better than the Marines in their dress blues? I wasn’t in long enough to get that. They didn’t have them when I went in.”

Margaret says her Catholic school education prepared her for her military service because, “Twelve years with the nuns ... and the Marine Corp discipline was nothing. I was used to it.”

But, she says, men weren’t used to training women when she arrived at Parris Island for boot camp. The male drill sergeant wasn’t too happy about being assigned to drill a female platoon. “He would walk on the sidewalk so people wouldn’t know he was drilling the women. The other marines would say to him, ‘Your petticoat is showing ... your petticoat is showing!’ ”

Marine No. 108 was assigned, along with most of the other women, to headquarters in D.C. She served as secretary to the speech officer, where she assisted with writing speeches for generals, senators and, one time, President Harry S. Truman. She loved the work.

She lived with two other women in an apartment off base because they didn’t have barracks for female Marines. That’s when, she says, she experienced discrimination for the first time in her life — as a Marine in uniform, leaving work and stopping on the way home to shop at stores or grab a bite to eat. “People just looked right through you,” she said. “They ignored you. If you went in the military you were no good.”

No good? I didn’t understand. “You were only there to fool around with the men — that was the accepted opinion,” my mother-in-law explained. “Like you got to see them!” she added, scoffing at the misconception when, in reality, women and men were kept separate.

She said a sailor tried to break into the female barracks during boot camp and “he almost got killed. They must’ve clubbed him or something.” These women weren’t there to meet men.

Nearly 10 years ago we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday, joining her when she visited the Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington Cemetery. The rooftop terrace holds glass tablets, skylights, which are etched with quotes by and about women in service. To me, the poignantly worded glass tablets represent a glass ceiling of sorts, one that is being shattered by brave women who are joining brave men in helicopters, on ships, in the cockpit and on the battlefield. And these women are rising higher and higher in the ranks. Just this week, the U.S. Navy promoted Michelle Howard to the rank of a four-star Admiral, a first in the Navy’s 238-year history and a milestone for women in the American military.

My mother-in-law wasn’t putting her life at risk the way women do now — and she says she couldn’t have even made it through the basic training women are put through today — but she used the tools available to her to chip away at that glass ceiling and show society, and herself, what women could do if they wanted to serve their country.

“I am very proud I was part of it,” the former Marine said. “There were times I was wondering what I was doing there but, other than that, I am very glad I did it.” She doesn’t think women should serve in combat because, “I’m very old-fashioned” but she does think “every teenager first year out of high school should have to go through boot camp ... not go overseas ... just go through boot camp because if you go through that, you are a changed person.”

This Independence Day I think about women such as my mother-in-law and how their independence led them to serve our country. Their independence has been an example of strength, courage and commitment for my generation, the next one and, especially, those serving now.

“This award doesn’t have anything to do with being a female. It’s about the duties I performed that day as a soldier.” Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, Kentucky Army National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom, first female to be awarded the Silver Star for direct actions against an enemy force.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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