Women's History Month: Women Defenders

Posted on 03/11/24 by Mandy Stanage Shoptaw

As Women's History Month unfolds, we have an opportunity to shine a spotlight on women veterans. The multifaceted contributions of women from different branches of the armed forces can be seen on the AARP Arkansas Veterans Team, where they continue their civic duty through service projects and advocacy work.

For nearly as long as there has been war, women have served in some capacity, traditionally in a support role such as tending to soldiers wounded on the battlefield. While women have been an integral part of the U.S. military for centuries, their formal inclusion dates to the establishment of the Women's Army Corps (WAC), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in 1942, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in 1943. These areas of service allowed women to take on non-combat roles, thus releasing men for frontline duties.

During the Korean War, the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps saw an influx of female personnel, providing medical care and support for the troops in Korea. Women also took on clerical and administrative roles, supporting the logistical and organizational aspects of the military. As with World War II, these duties were seen as ways to free up more men to be deployed to the front lines.

The Vietnam War saw continued expansion of the role of women in service, including as combat nurses and in clerical positions. Women served in the Women's Army Corps, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps. In fact, several women on our Veterans Team served in or during Vietnam.

Ret. E6 Nurse Margie Jones receives a Vietnam Honor Eagle Pin from Ret. Col. Harold Tucker
Ret. E6 Nurse Margie Jones receives a Vietnam Honor Eagle Pin from Ret. Col. Harold Tucker

“When I started working at the VA (Veterans Affairs) after the Vietnam war, people were surprised that I was disappointed that my service was purely stateside. You see, I come from a long line of service members and to me, it was an honor to serve in whatever capacity I could,” said Margie Jones, who retired from service with the rank of E6 in the 148 evac hospital medical group. “As part of the nurses’ corps, we received extensive training. My training was in Alabama, and I am so grateful for it because one of the things we did was teach the medics before they shipped out [to Vietnam].”

She remembers with great fondness the first group she encountered that came home from Vietnam. “It was a group of National Guard soldiers who returned to Arkansas,” she said.

“I joined right after women were activated to be part of the medical corps in combat, so there were a lot of opportunities for women,” said Jones, who continued in nursing with the VA for 28 years. “Stateside, there were so many women. I thought it was great. But being in a leadership role as a woman, you had to change your mindset and use a lot of self-discipline. For example, as a nurse, your skills are needed to treat patients, but as a woman you see something that needs to be done, like making a bed or taking out the trash, and your instinct is to just do it. You cannot, you have to know your role and that was a change for a lot of us who would normally volunteer for tasks.”

Following the Vietnam War, the role of women in the military continued to evolve, and women made strides in various branches of the armed forces. In 1973, the U.S. transitioned to an all-volunteer military, opening more opportunities to women, and soon, the U.S. military academies would follow suit. West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy began to admit women for the first time in 1976. By 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense officially lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles, overturning the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule. This change allowed women to serve in positions that were previously closed to them.

AARP Arkansas State Director Ashley McBride, Maria Hoskins, U.S. Army Veteran and Little Rock Nine Member Elizabeth Eckford, Army Lt. Col. Sharetta Glover, 39th Brigade Support Battalion commander, Ret. Lt. Col. Derotha Webb McIntosh, and Ret. Chief Warrant Officer Five Phyllis Wilson, who serves as the President of the Women's Military Memorial.
AARP Arkansas State Director Ashley McBride, Maria Hoskins, U.S. Army Veteran and Little Rock Nine Member Elizabeth Eckford, Army Lt. Col. Sharetta Glover, 39th Brigade Support Battalion commander, Ret. Lt. Col. Derotha Webb McIntosh, and Ret. Chief Warrant Officer Five Phyllis Wilson, who serves as the President of the Women's Military Memorial.

“In 1990, I was part of Operation Desert Storm as a commander over a medical-surgical unit,” said Derotha Webb McIntosh, who retired from the US Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. “We were not told where we were going. The mission was classified so there was a lot of time for those on the aircraft to wonder and pray. When we arrived to set up the hospital, we found out we were in Seeb, Oman. Stepping off the aircraft, all you saw was desert, for as far as you could see. No trees, no buildings. Material bundles were dropped from the aircraft, and everyone knew their role. We had a limited amount of time to get set up so people in charge of water began working to get our water installed, others were setting up the mess hall and barracks, my team was working on the hospital.”

As a lifelong nurse who retired from the Jacksonville Air Force Base, Derotha said that mutual cooperation was key to success. “Security was tight, and our mission was to set up the hospital. We were in the line of fire and did get some casualties. But honestly, I never doubted our capabilities,” she said. “As a leader, you cannot be doubtful. There were not a lot of women and so you did have to deal with ego at times especially from men who were not used to working with or under women, but all in all, people were proud to be there doing the jobs they trained for and that was the priority for us all. When we were in surgery, the doctor was in charge, but when surgery was over, I had responsibilities to make sure the hospital stayed up and running and I was in charge. Knowing our roles made it possible for everyone to function seamlessly.”

For women serving today, Derotha says that a priority is to set aside all the personal things you enjoy stateside and be prepared for the sacrifices, but most important create a community with those who are still in the United States who will write and send packages. “Getting mail, communication from the states, meant so much and helped the women on base to get items they needed, such as lip balm or hair oil. Little things that meant a lot to us in the desert when water was in short supply.”

Throughout their history of service, women have demonstrated resilience, courage, and commitment in the face of unique challenges. Their roles evolved over time, contributing significantly to the overall success of military efforts. Today, women serve in diverse roles across all branches of the armed forces and, according to a report by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS), the number of women veterans is steadily rising, comprising nearly 10% of the total veteran population.

If you are a veteran or the spouse of a veteran and would like to join our Veterans Team, please email us at ar@aarp.org so we can connect you to this very involved group.

Sources:
National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, "Women Veterans Report - 2019."
"American Women in World War II" - National Women's History Museum.
"American Women in World War II" - National Archives.
"Korean War Nurses" - Army Nurse Corps Association.
"The Role of Women in the Korean War" - National Women's History Museum.
"Women in the Vietnam War" - National Women's History Museum.
"The Women of the Vietnam War" - Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation.

This story is provided by AARP Arkansas. Visit the AARP Arkansas page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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