Puerto Rican Servicewomen Answer the Call to Serve
Although Puerto Rican women undoubtedly began working as civilian employees of the US Armed Forces as early as 1898–the beginning of the Spanish-American War–the stories of their contributions as hospital aides, nurses, office workers and day laborers have been lost to history. The first documented evidence of Puerto Rican women’s service to our country dates back to World War I, a time when Puerto Rico was still a territory of the United States and women could not vote. When the war began in 1917, the US Army Medical Corps believed that it would not need the services of women doctors. By 1918, however, the Army realized that they could not find enough male physicians specializing in anesthesia to work in military operating rooms. Because the specialty did not pay well, most physician anesthetists were women. The Army realized that if it wanted to fill these positions, it would have to accept the services of women, and reluctantly began hiring women physicians as civilian contract employees. Dr. Dolores Pinero was one of those whom the Army placed under contract.1
World War I
A native of Puerto Rico with a medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, MA, Dr. Pinero was practicing medicine and anesthesia in the town of Rio Piedras, PR, when World War I began.2 In her memoirs, she wrote that when she first went to Army headquarters in San Juan, PR, to apply to become a contract surgeon, the colonel in charge did not believe he could accept a woman applicant. Dr. Pinero then wrote to William C. Gorgas, the Army Surgeon General in Washington, DC, and “within days received a telegram ordering me to report to Camp Las Casas at Santurce, Puerto Rico.” Signing her contract with the Army in Oct. 1918, Pinero became the first Puerto Rican woman doctor to serve in the Army under contract. She was assigned to the base hospital at San Juan, working in the mornings as an anesthetist and in the laboratory during the afternoons.3
Within a month, a deadly new enemy emerged to challenge US Army doctors. Swine Flu, or influenza, swept through Army camps and training posts around the world, infecting one quarter of all soldiers and killing more than 55,000 American troops.4 Dr. Pinero and four male colleagues received orders to open a 400-bed hospital in Ponce, PR, to care for influenza patients. The five doctors worked day and night throughout the epidemic. When the contagion finally ended, Dr. Pinero was ordered back to the Army base hospital at San Juan, where her contract was formally terminated and she then returned to her practice in Rio Piedras.5
Army nurses, 296th Station Hospital, Camp Tortuguero, Vega Baja, PR, 1945. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
World War II
Later, during World War II, many Puerto Rican nurses wanted to volunteer with the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Initially, neither corps would accept them. In 1944, when large numbers of Puerto Rican men were being inducted into the Army, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) reluctantly began to recruit Puerto Rican nurses. Thirteen women submitted applications, were interviewed, underwent physical examinations and were accepted into the corps. They were Lieutenants Venia Hilda Roig, Rose Mary Glanville Campbell, Asuncion Bonilla-Velasco, Elba Cintron, Casilda Gonzalez, Olga Gregory, Eva Garcia, Carmen Lozano Dumler, Margarita Vilaro, Medarda Rosario, Aurea Cotto Carter, Julie Gonzalez and Marta Munoz-Otero. Eight of these nurses, valued for their bilingual abilities, were assigned to the Army post at San Juan, where they acted as interpreters whenever necessary. Four nurses worked at the hospital at Camp Tortuguero Training Center near Vega Baja, PR.6
2LT Carmen Lozano Dumler, Army Nurse Corps, 1944-46. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
One of these nurses was Carmen Lozano Dumler. She graduated from Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in Puerto Rico in the spring of 1944, knowing that she wanted to join the ANC. She was sworn in Aug. 21, 1944, and remembers it as the proudest day of her life. 2LT Dumler’s first assignment was at the 161st General Hospital in San Juan. The Army then sent her to Camp Tortuguero and later to the 395th Station Hospital at Ft. Read, Trinidad, British West Indies. At the 395th she nursed soldiers recovering from wounds received at Normandy and both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking soldiers appreciated being able to “talk out” their anxieties and nightmares with her.7
More than 100 Puerto Rican WACs who served in New York return to the Antilles Department for discharge, Jan. 1946. National Archives.
WWII also brought with it opportunities for women to serve in jobs other than nursing. When the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was first established in 1942, the Army did not think it necessary to recruit and train Puerto Rican women. The island suffered from a high level of unemployment and wages in the civilian sector were extremely low. Thus many civilian women were anxious to work for the military and therefore it was not necessary to put women into uniform to fill jobs. However, by 1944 the Army began having problems recruiting women and in April of that year the Women’s Army Corps (the WAAC became the WAC in 1943) sent recruiters to Puerto Rico to organize a unit of women. One WAC officer and three enlisted women were authorized to recruit no more than 200 women. More than 1,500 applicants responded to the announcement for the 200 slots.8 Most of the applicants were teachers or office workers, and 40 percent were college graduates.9 The women recruits were enlisted, trained and assigned as a single unit to the Port of Embarkation in New York City, working in military offices planning the shipment of troops around the world. When the war ended, the “Transportation WACs,” as they were called, remained on duty, helping millions of soldiers return home. Finally, in 1946, the women themselves returned home to Puerto Rico.10
PFC Carmen Medina, Women's Army Corps, 1944-46. Women's Memorial Foundation Register. LTJG Maria Rodriquez Denton, Navy Women's Reserve (WAVES), 1944-45. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
The “Transportation WACs” unit included San Sebastian, PR, native Carmen M. Medina. She and her fellow WACs were assigned to Ft. Oglethorpe, GA, for their basic training. When the unit was sent to New York City, the 21-year-old PFC Medina worked as a clerk typist in an Army post office at the Port of Embarkation. She is proud of her service and believes that it was the most important thing she has ever done.11
The Navy also recruited a small number of Puerto Rican women as members of the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES) during World War II. One was Maria Rodriguez Denton, who was born in Guanica, PR, in 1909. The Navy assigned LTJG Denton as a library assistant at the Cable and Censorship Office in New York City. She forwarded the news, through channels, that the war had ended to President Harry Truman at the White House.12 Another Puerto Rico native, S1C Idalia Salcedo Rodriguez of Naguabo, was assigned to the Navy’s Bureau of Ships in Washington, DC, where she was thrilled to march with her unit in honorary parades for ADM Chester W. Nimitz and GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower at the end of the war.13
The 1950s and 1960s
Like their WWII sisters, Puerto Rican women continued to volunteer for military service during the 1950s and 1960s–a time when a military career was an unusual choice for a woman and women comprised less than 2 percent of the US Armed Forces. Military nurses, like 1LT Gloria Esparra Petersen of Barranquitas, PR, continued to be a vital asset to the Army during this period. 1LT Petersen served as an Army nurse at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, during the Korean War. Assigned to the recovery room, she worked with soldiers wounded in Korea who had been evacuated to the United States for medical treatment.14
Another nurse, LTC Nilda Carrulas Cedero Fuertes, joined the ANC in 1953 at the age of 21. Originally from Toa Baja, PR, she was on active duty until 1964 and then served in the Army Reserve until 1990. LTC Fuertes’ most memorable experience in the military was teaching the latest modern nursing techniques to Nicaraguan Army Nurses while on temporary duty in Nicaragua for six months.15 Some Puerto Rican Army women opted for non-nursing careers. WO4 Ana Alicea-Diaz served in the Army for 25 years, 24 of them in law enforcement. The San Juan native said, “Keeping our troops and families safe, was very fulfilling, rewarding, and an honor.”16
CWO3 Rose Franco, Marine Corps, 1954-58 and 1958-77. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
The Marines also enlisted women from the island. Rose Franco, of Ensenada, PR, joined the Marine Corps in 1954. The 20-year-old private was assigned as a supply administrative assistant at Camp Pendleton, CA. At the end of her four-year enlistment, she returned home, intending to work for an airline company. However, Franco missed being a Marine so much that she decided to re-enlist before her 90-day reenlistment window was gone. She said, “Although I love my home and Puerto Rico, I found that by the 89th day I was so homesick for the Marines that I rushed back to the states and re-enlisted for another six-year term.” During the 1960s, Franco was selected as the administrative assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and she was stationed at the Pentagon. In 1968, at the Secretary’s recommendation, Franco was appointed as a warrant officer, one of only 11 women warrant officers in the Marine Corps at that time. She was then assigned as an adjutant and congressional inquiry officer of a staging battalion at Camp Pendleton. CWO3 Franco retired in 1977 after 23 years of service.17
SFC Ana (Reyes-Colon) Mackino, Women's Army Corps, 1964-68 and Army Reserve, 1979-Present. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
New Language and Customs
When they join the armed forces, Puerto Rican women must learn to adapt to both the military culture and the language and customs of the US mainland–often a difficult adjustment. Army Reserve SFC Ana M. Mackino of Cidra, PR, wrote “My most memorable military experience is, without a doubt, the day I left home for the Women’s Army Corps Training Center at Fort McClellan, Alabama [on] April 22, 1964. A Spanish speaking 19-year old, I left home for the first time to join a group of about 40 other young girls from all parts of the United States, with different accents and customs. It took me about 20 hours to travel from the Air Force base in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to Fort McClellan, Alabama. I will never forget that as the bus driver got to the gate, he stopped the bus and said to all of us recruits, ‘This is your last chance to turn around and go back home; once we go through that gate there is no turning back.’ No one got off the bus. When we went into the barracks, upstairs to the open bay, at the top of the stairs we heard a loud-mouth platoon sergeant shout at the top of her lungs, ‘Take your shoes off, you do not walk on this floor with shoes on.’ It was difficult at first because of the language, but I knew right there and then that this was the first day of the beginning of my life.”18
Retired Army dietitian COL Merjoery Lott also remembers her transition from island life to Army life. She said, “In 1962, I was a young 21-year old student in the Army Dietetic Internship Program at Brook Army Medical Center, Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. Two months into the program, the armed forces were placed on alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This situation was strained by the fact that I had recently left my country of Puerto Rico, and was adjusting to a different culture and language.” A resident of Manati, PR, COL Lott said, “In 1966-68, during the troop build-up and heavy fighting in Vietnam, I was assigned as Chief of the Production and Service Branch, Food Service Division at Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii. The hospital was taking in large numbers of casualties from Vietnam for stabilization and subsequent return to CONUS [the continental United States]. The hospital patient capacity was extraordinarily strained, resulting in ward overflow, and having to bed the overflow in hallways. Patient feeding became a challenge and long work hours ensued.” COL Lott persevered in her military career during an era when the armed forces suffered in popularity and she remained in the Army for 26 years.19
The All-Volunter Force
During the 1970s, in reaction to the Women’s Movement and as a result of the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force, roles for women in the military began to expand, as did the number of women who chose the military as a career. Puerto Rican servicewomen were among those breaking barriers for military women everywhere. Edna Acosta-Newson of Ponce, PR, joined the Connecticut National Guard as a private in 1973. In 1974 she was accepted into the officer candidate class at the Connecticut Military Academy at Niantic, CT, becoming, she believes, the first female to attend this all-male military academy. She remembers this experience as difficult for everyone involved, including the male cadets and the instructors. In 1982 Acosta-Newson became the first female company commander in the Connecticut Army National Guard.20 MAJ Sonia Roca, born in San Juan in 1955, is proud to be the first Hispanic female officer to attend the Command and General Staff Officer Course at the Army's School of the Americas.21
In addition to breaking barriers, these servicewomen also continued to be highly valued by the military for their language skills. In 1976 Linda Garcia, half Puerto Rican-American and half Mexican-American, was in the first class of women to attend the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, CO. In one of her first jobs as an intelligence officer, Lt Garcia analyzed Argentina’s military capabilities during the Falklands crisis. Garcia told a newspaper reporter several years later, “I briefed the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff–as a second lieutenant–talking ad hoc about missile fighters.”22
SP4 Sylvia Gonzalez Maider, Army, 1978-84. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
A reflection of their growing numbers, Puerto Rican servicewomen have participated in many modern deployments. For instance, Army SPC Sylvia Gonzalez Maider remembered witnessing the arrival, at Weisbaden Hospital in Germany in 1980, of the American hostages held by Iran. The Juana Diaz, PR, resident wrote, “That was by far my proudest moment as an American soldier.”23
Navy Reserve CDR Maria Morales also recalls her deployment to Panama. She served at Rodman Naval Station in the Panama Canal Zone during Operation Just Cause in Dec. 1989. CDR Morales, who grew up in Clara, PR, wrote, “I had my first real experience with the anguish and impact of an armed conflict, not only on military service members, but on families as well. During this conflict, I had the opportunity to take a first hand look at the quality, courage, and most of all, compassion of our young service men and women in uniform. A most enlightening and truly eye-opening experience that positively changed my outlook of life completely, forever.”24
CAPT Haydee Javier Kimmich, Navy, 1977-97. Women's Memorial Foundation Register.
Puerto Rican servicewomen were also among the 41,000 women who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s. While stationed in Europe, Air Force SSgt Margarita Lopez Davis of Bayamon, PR, provided forecasts for aircraft carrying troops to Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield.25 Service in the first Gulf war also included Navy women like CAPT Haydee Javier Kimmich. The Cabo Rogo, PR, resident described her job during Operation Desert Storm: “I was assigned as the Chief of Orthopedics at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda and I reorganized their Reservist Department during the war. In 1998, I was selected as the woman of the year in Puerto Rico.”26
American servicewomen proved their abilities during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and as a result Congress lifted the bans on assigning servicewomen to combat aircraft and vessels engaged in combat missions. The armed services, in turn, significantly expanded the array of jobs to which servicewomen can be assigned.
SPC Lizbeth Robles, Army, 2003-05. Undated handout photo by family.
Puerto Rican servicewomen are participating in today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in unprecedented numbers, frequently in battlefield positions previously banned to military women. As a result of this participation, Puerto Rican servicewomen are also accepting the risks of service and some are becoming casualties of war. To date, three Puerto Rican Army women have died in Iraq, including 20-year-old SPC Frances Marie Vega of Ft. Buchanan; SPC Lizbeth Robles, a 31 year old native of Vega Baja; and SPC Aleina Ramirezgonzalez, who was 33 years old and grew up in Hormigueros.