A woman whom I have always respected and admired is Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a leader amongst men. She was generations ahead of her time and she had an uncanny ability to move women to act. In 1942, as this country was engrossed in a war like we had never seen, she said, “This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”
Her words became a rally cry in my life when I joined the Air Force and entered the first class of women to enroll at the Air Force Academy. It was my rally cry then, it was my rally cry throughout my career, and it still motivates me today as I lead the Veterans Benefits Administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eleanor’s words appealed to a young woman in 1976 about to embark on an adventure I could only imagine because they reminded me that women can make a difference in military service to this nation. I knew this because the women who had served in the military before me had made the difference – their service had made the difference to me: they broke barriers that allowed me to enroll in the Academy and eventually achieve the rank of brigadier general.
Today, women serve in the US military in unprecedented numbers – 12 percent of those who have served since September 11 are women. Women are the fastest growing population within the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Women have the honor of wearing the uniform – something that only 10 percent of the entire U.S. population can claim – because of the women who served before us and broke down barriers.
During the Revolutionary War, women had to disguise themselves as men to serve. The most famous woman credited with doing this is Deborah Sampson of Plympton, Massachusetts. She was only discovered after she was wounded for the third time. She received an honorable discharge and war pension.
Sampson made a difference to Dr. Mary Walker who did not have to disguise herself to serve. Dr. Mary Walker became the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for casualty care she provided to Civil War soldiers. She also wrote legislation that created a permanent nurse corps. Walker made the difference to more than 33,000 Army and Navy nurses who served during World War I The Military nurses made the difference to countless service members whose lives they saved.
During World War II, women flew airplanes in the Women Airforce Service Pilots – WASP. They flew stateside as ferries, test pilots and anti-aircraft artillery trainers. The Navy created WAVES -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – women reservists who defended America.The Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, and the Coast Guard established the Women’s Reserve.The women who served in these units made the difference. Their dedication to our country showed that women are as capable as men, and in 1948 women were granted permanent status in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and the newly created Air Force.
In Korea, 500 Army nurses served in combat zones healing our injured. In the 1960s, about 7,000 military women served in Southwest Asia. In the 1970s the academies and ROTC opened to women.
In 1983, the Army named a woman, Galen Grant, the first “Drill Sergeant of the Year.” I am sure Galen Grant’s service made the difference to Army Sgt. Major Teresa King, who in 2009 became the first woman commandant of the Army Drill School at Ft. Jackson SC. where she still currently serves. I can only imagine how future generations of service women Sgt. Maj. King will impact.
In the 1990s women continued breaking barriers and impacting future generations. My Air Force Academy classmate, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, became the fist U.S. military woman in space aboard the Shuttle endeavor. In 2005, Army National Guard Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester of Kentucky became the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for combat action.
Today, women serve multiple rotations performing security patrols in war zones even though the ban on combat has not officially been lifted. They fly jets, serve aboard ships, gather our intelligence, provide security, patrol dangerous environments, and execute their military duties flawlessly.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we honor the service of all Veterans -- all 23 million alive today. We honor their families who support them throughout their service, and we honor their survivors who make unimaginable sacrifices everyday in the absence of their loved ones.
We are working harder than ever to reach out to women Veterans, many of whom do not embrace their identities as Veterans. We want them to know about the programs they have earned with their service. We want each woman who has served in uniform to proudly call themselves Veterans.
The VA Center for Women Veterans is focused on women Veterans’ issues and advocates for Women Veterans by helping to shape for VA, our partners, and policy makers, what it means to treat women Veterans with dignity and respect.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has Women Veterans Program Managers at all VA medical centers and at outpatient clinics in the community. VHA has built a program that helps women Veterans navigate the VA medical system and utilize our women-specific wellness and comprehensive medical programs.
At the Veterans Benefits Administration, we’re expanding our numbers of full-time Women Veterans Benefits Coordinators, who are trained and focused on helping women.These coordinators will advocate for women Veterans in every one of our 57 regional offices.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki has formed a VA Task Force on Women Veterans to identify gaps in services and opportunities to better serve women Veterans, and develop results-oriented recommendations to advance VA's efforts to address women Veterans' needs. He is committed to breaking down all barriers in VA to better serve our women Veterans.
The efforts include championing our Homeless Women Veterans Pilot Project, which was created to provide a safe environment for homeless women Veterans to obtain the services they need.
We also are devoting resources to help women Veterans find jobs. These women have extraordinary skills, abilities and commitment that I know employers want in their employees.
“This is not a time when women should be patient,” Eleanor said. Generations of military women have heard that call and taken it to heart. I am proud of their legacy and I am proud to be a part of it. I am honored to serve all Veterans, their families and their survivors. I am a Veteran!
Thank you for your service and happy Veterans Day.
Allison A. Hickey is the Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.