By Therese Agnes Hughes
A few years ago, I started recording stories about women who cracked the military glass ceiling. The project’s focus radically changed after my first couple of interviews. I met former Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Tammy Duckworth in Washington, D.C. At the start of the interview, Assistant Secretary Duckworth let me know she had changed her mind and would not be conducting the interview. I was very disappointed and struck silent by her words. I asked her why she had had a change of heart. What she humbly shared with me was the value of the military women who are not already in the news and the importance of telling their stories, instead. She credited those women with allowing her to reach her success.
Over the past two years, I’ve networked with the women veterans that now-Congresswoman Duckworth mentioned. They are enlisted, and they are officers. They are retired, separated from service and serving on active duty. They live in our cities and communities across the nation.
They are women like Army National Guard Lt. Col. Kelly Brown, who graduated from West Point and became a pilot, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, Brown was responsible for engaging Afghan citizens on the ground. In partnership with Taimoor Eshaqzai, Deputy Minister of Youth, she helped establish Afghanistan’s first National Youth Council. Brown helped make sure that girls were equitably represented on these councils. She says, “In Afghanistan, 68 percent of the population is below the age of 25 years …Girls represent 50 percent of that demographic. To say that the youth is the future of Afghanistan and that women are an important part of that future is no small statement…Working with Afghanistan’s cultural considerations [they vary somewhat between provinces], we mandated that the National Youth Council would be comprised of an equal number of boys and girls from each province.”
They are women veterans like Amelia Diaz Taylor, a medical corpsman in the Navy's Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service division, and one of a handful of Hispanic women to serve during World War II. “Two of my brothers joined the Navy. I wanted to do something for the war effort, too. We were farm workers. I am Mexican-American, and I was young. Both of my parents had to sign my enlistment papers. I was required to provide my birth certificate to a federal judge because the Navy recruiters thought I wasn’t a U.S. citizen.” Diaz-Taylor convinced the judge she was a citizen and served as a medic for the remainder of the war, in San Diego. “At this time, the Balboa Park in San Diego was set up as a MASH Unit. The boys would come home in terrible shape. Medicine was not advanced at this time. We could do little for most of them. We could only comfort them and calm their fears.”
And they are women like Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, who enlisted in 1974 on a dare. “I was a woman in the Corps when the Corps was wondering what to do with women in their ranks.” Selection for the “Enlisted Commissioning Program” increased Salinas’ opportunity to grow professionally. She became the first woman assigned as a combat service support ground monitor, the first female assigned as plans and policy officer for a major combatant command, and the first woman to command the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Today Salinas speaks to young women both in military and civilian life. She often says, “I didn’t set out to break a glass ceiling. I just worked to be the best possible Marine I could be.” Salinas is the highest-ranking Latina in our nation’s Marine Corps.
These stories represent three of the nearly 700 women veterans interviewed. They are from the three oldest military branches: Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Each veteran’s experience is unique and each female veteran’s story strengthens the opportunities for all women.