Changing the Face of Courage
More than three million women are serving or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the American Revolution, but the stories of these courageous patriots are often unknown. For the most part, history tells the stories of service members who were men, and the service of women goes unrecognized. The Women In Military Service For America Memorial (WIMSA or Women’s Memorial) is on a mission to change that. We aim to broaden our ideas of what courage looks like and open dialogue to explore how women contribute to making a safer and better world.
“During my deployment to Iraq from 2003-2004, I did signals intelligence as an Arabic linguist. I also went on combat foot patrols with an infantry platoon in Baghdad, and I translated for Iraqi civilians who were severely wounded when unexploded ordnance detonated in their neighborhood. To me, though, none of this was particularly courageous — I was just doing my duty and helping accomplish the mission.
Upon my return, I found that the American people were largely ignorant of the role women were playing in combat, so I took on what was a much more frightening role: telling my story and becoming a public advocate for military and veteran women. My first book, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army, came out in 2005. I used the platform of being a published author to push for increased equality in the military by speaking out in support of rescinding the combat exclusion policy, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and eliminating the ban on service by openly transgender servicemembers.
After struggling for years to support my combat-injured spouse, I published Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. In that volume, I shared the excruciatingly intimate details of life with someone wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury in order to push for improved support systems for wounded warriors and their families.
For me, speaking truth to power as an individual has required far more bravery than serving in combat as part of a team—but it's worth it to support a higher purpose and fight for what is right.”
“I served in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer from 2000-2006 onboard the USS JARRETT (FFG-33) and USS DENVER (LPD-9). We deployed twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On both ships, I was one of a handful of women. The bond with fellow women sailors definitely helped me get through long days at sea and long bridge watches.
Following active duty service, I really wanted to continue to serve the community. Making the transition wasn't easy, but I found my calling in serving veterans like me in the state of Illinois. I joined the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago, where I am currently the Director of the Veterans Program. As a woman veteran, I have the opportunity to not only advocate and help fellow veterans but also to ensure that women veterans are not overlooked. By helping veteran causes, I am able to continue making an impact in a community which has had such a great impact on me."
“I come from a very long line of military members—my 4th great-grandfather in the Revolutionary War, a 2nd great-grandfather in the Civil War, an uncle in World War II at Iwo Jima. My Uncle Adam Tymowicz was shot down over France during World War II only to be MIA in the Korean War, and my father Thomas was in the Navy on the USS Courtney. I followed in their footsteps.
When I was in boot camp, I had a bladder and kidney infection. My company commander saw me falling behind, and she started running with me. ‘Never quit,’ she said. ‘You keep going, girl. You push and you will finish this.
Once I returned home from service overseas, I felt lost—like I had no meaning in my life. Then I discovered cycling as a way to raise money for my fellow veterans. During a 61-day ride east, I felt like I had meaning again. After that, I cycled solo 3,042 miles from San Diego to St Augustine, Florida, and raised $30,680 for my veteran brothers and sisters.
Those same words that got me through boot camp got me through this, as the have gotten me through many other challenges throughout my life.
Although I’m no longer in that Navy uniform, I still want to express my support for my fellow veterans. I feel that once you have served in uniform, you are always in uniform. You take that oath for life.
I would do it all over again if I had to, with no hesitation, just like many of my fellow veteran sisters and brothers would."
“I was assigned to the International Military Training Team (IMATT) in Sierra Leone to provide humanitarian assistance. My work also included monitoring political elections and providing riot control when necessary. I never thought I would be responsible for driving through multiple roadblocks while choking on tear gas and doing my best to avoid injury to myself or my team as we worked to successfully deliver the future President of Sierra Leone. In the moment, I was scared. But that fear gave me the strength I needed to to make it through.
Honestly, that night in Sierra Leone seemed like the most courageous moment of my life — until I had to look cancer in the face back at home. Several years after Sierra Leone, when “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” was lifted, I married my beautiful wife and we decided to have a family.
While I was six months pregnant, my wife was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemo and radiation at Walter Reed. Our healthy baby girl came a month early, my wife beat the crap out of cancer and I retired from military service. We spend every day grateful to have so many loving and supporting people in our lives. And I’ve learned that it’s the battles closest to home that require the greatest courage."
“My strength and courage is participating in this project—sharing my story of being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor. I want people to see me as the person I am, not as a victim. I’m a Military Police Officer. I am expected to display constant courage. But as a survivor, I am able to go beyond that and empathize with the people I help. I show them my strength and courage in hopes they will find their own."
“I served 27 years in the Coast Guard. The scariest time for me in my career was sending my teams of young men and women out into the field and hoping we did our job in preparing them to take on the mission, successfully face the myriad challenges that lay in front of them, and return home safely to the unit, their friends and most importantly their family.
I did not get where I am alone…along the way I had family friends, mentors, good leaders and bad managers—and I learned from each and every one. To me, leadership is ensuring I raise those that follow in my footsteps and provide them with the necessary training, encouragement, and mentorship to be able to assume my job, and be even more innovative and successful at it than I have been. I want to pave the way for future generations and I want those who follow to be able do the same. Success is leaving the position and realizing you have accomplished that goal.”
“When I arrived in Germany as a green Ordnance Corps second lieutenant, a Colonel greeted me with disgust. ‘I don’t want you in my army,’ he said. He expressed a hostility many shared for integration in the military. Some days it took courage to report to work. But those ugly days eventually receded. Feelings of anger, fear, and doubts were crowded out by a growing sense of strength, determination, and perseverance, with the support of people like Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Brick, a no-nonsense combat veteran who demanded the best of everyone and counseled me through those difficult post-Vietnam times. Challenges remained, but those early lessons served me well. I became the first female Assistant Army Attaché and the Army Attaché at the US Embassy in Beijing.”
Dr. Olivia Hooker
“Today we honor Dr. Olivia Hooker, who recently passed away at age 103. Dr. Hooker helped break down others’ perception of courage throughout her whole life. As a child, she survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. She went on to become the first black woman to enlist in the Coast Guard in WWII. After the war, she earned a master’s degree at Columbia University and a doctorate at the University of Rochester. She was a professor until she retired at age 87.
You see there were no people of our race in the Navy—no girls—we had been campaigning for that privilege, but nobody joined. I kept watching the newspapers and I thought, to campaign for certain civil rights and then not use them is very feudal. Somebody ought to be joining up after the campaign, but nobody did! I thought if I did go and survive maybe someone else will come. Although I had applied for the Navy, they kept writing back saying there is a technicality. They didn’t tell me what the technicality was. So, I said let me try the Coast Guard. And the Coast Guard recruiter was just so welcoming, she wanted to be the first one to enroll an African American.
I didn’t know anything about the military going in, and I didn’t know many people who were not of my hue, and it was good for me to mix with other people and find out how they thought and what they were like. It taught me a lot about order and priorities. I’d like to see more of us realizing that our country needs us. I’d like to see more girls consider spending some time in the military. It’s really nice to have people with different points of view and different kinds of upbringing—the world would really prosper from more of that.”
“I was more than just a soldier, I was a single mother continuing her education and serving in the Army on active duty. The experiences I had in the military shaped me as a young professional, a non-commissioned officer, a trainer, and an adviser.
I think about the people that mentored me during my time and how their influence and support gave me the courage to push through tough times, like deployments, duty assignments, and family separations.
Their guidance allowed me to demonstrate outstanding leadership to my fellow soldiers and prepared me for a rewarding career beyond service. I know now that you must have the courage to step out and take the path less traveled. There may have been moments in my career I could have done things a little differently, but, overall, I am proud of the choices I have made.”
“My service dog’s vest says, ‘America’s VetDogs,’ which often leads to people to asking me, ‘Are you training him for a veteran?’ Then I take the opportunity to gently remind them women are veterans too. All too often women veterans are reached across by good-intended, patriotic Americans who want to shake our male comrades’ hands and thank them for their service. Of course the men deserve the thanks. Women do too. Sadly, we’re not the image that instantly comes to mind when someone says, ‘veteran,’ and we often go overlooked. That’s all changing through programs like my Veterans Portrait Project and Women in Military Service for America’s story documentation and archive endeavors. Both are special to me because they’re helping redefine our Nation’s image of a veteran."
“I received orders for Vietnam in the fall of 1969. After a flight into Ben Hoa airport and four days of waiting, I was transferred to the 91st Evac Hospital in Chu Lai where I remained until October 1970.
“During my time there, I spent the first three months treating GIs with medical issues—hepatitis, malaria, jungle rot and intestinal worms. I then transferred to the emergency room. For the next eight months, the rest of the staff and I cared for GIs as well as the South Vietnamese army and Vietnamese civilians. We even treated those from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army who were placed briefly on the POW ward. We became familiar with penetrating shrapnel injuries, loss of limbs from land mines, gunshot trauma, massive head wounds and so much more. It was a lifetime of nursing crammed into a year.
“Every day that I spent in the emergency room treating bruised and broken soldiers collectively defined my experience with the military. Some days were busier than others; some days we were totally overwhelmed. Much was expected of us and we gave our all to save as many as we could. The term courageous is often overused. These young men, however, fighting because they were asked to, were the courageous ones. They were not superheroes, musclebound bodybuilders. They were young men who gave of themselves for their country and their buddies.
It is through my speaking and the memoir that I wrote in 2015 then I hope to inform the younger generation about the challenges of war. ”
As a member of the Army Reserve, I’ve been able to build a career serving my country and serving Veterans as an employee of the VA. Many experiences during my seventeen years of service have been positive, but not all of them.
“During my deployment to Iraq in 2007, the vehicle I was driving was struck by an IED. Working through my injuries, both physical and psychological, made me a more resilient person. That resilience has served me while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, I not only had the support of friends and family, but from the soldiers in my unit.”
“I joined the Marine Corps at 17 years old out of San Antonio, Texas. I attended my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) school at Ft. Huachuca to become a Pioneer UAS Internal Pilot and was stationed at MAGTF-TC 29 Palms, the largest US Marine Corps Base. I circulated through a recruiting detail, burial detail and even had the opportunity to participate and play for the All-Female Marine Corps Soccer Team in 2001.
“I was selected to attend an additional MOS school in Milton FL to be a Pioneer UAS External Pilot and was qualified in 2002. I went on to deploy to Iraq with VMU-1 in 2003 and left service honorably in 2005. I was the only female ever qualified as a Pioneer EP for any military service. I gained employment with Northrop Grumman, and I became qualified as a Hunter UAS Internal and External Pilot by 2006 and deployed as a contractor to Iraq. I flew Hunter UAS until its official retirement flight, which I was honored to fly at the UAS Center of Excellence at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. I also went on to be named the only female to ever be qualified as a Hunter External Pilot--I am known amongst many in the unmanned world as the ‘Amelia Earhart of UAVs.’
“Serving in an environment for over 18 years in which female numbers were, and remain, low and male presence is dominant is a courageous standpoint for any woman. Women can not choose the path unlikely because of uncertainty; we must chose the path because have the courage, the strength and the ability!”
“When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, one of my tasks was to help the Army mortuary affairs team. It was brutal and mentally exhausting. You have to turn off your emotions. I was also a mother to a one-and-a-half-year-old at the time I deployed, and it made it harder.
“I was injured during this deployment and was medivaced back to the states. I never had the chance to decompress, and I never had the time to turn my emotions back on again. For years I lived with my emotions off. For years I lived with nightmares, flashbacks and anger. I knew I needed help; I knew my daughter needed her mom back.
“One day I walked into the Veterans Affair Hospital and said, ‘I need help.’ Since then and ‘til this day, I have therapy sessions, a support group, a husband and a family who are there with me. Sometimes courage IS saying, ‘I need help.’ When you go to a war zone and see awful things, it truly is okay to not be okay.”
Wanda “Sistah Soldier” Petty
“I understand the challenges associated with making career moves. During her final assignment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I became classified as a Wounded Warrior. Little did I know, the experience would catapult me to advocate for her peers and improve the lives of those yet to discover their place in an altered society they once knew.
“Fear of the unknown is so great during the military transition that often veterans accept marginal positions, which causes deprivation in lifestyles. In the effort to make the transition process more manageable, I assists them with navigating through thorny issues of career choices, diversity, inclusion and financial stability.
“After medically retiring in 2008, I was compelled to advocate for women and founded The National Resource Society for Women Veterans, Inc. to support, assist, and empower them with resources. I have assumed the role of president of SHE VET™ Media Productions, which provides photography, film, transformational coaching, staffing for digital media, and project management training for women of the military community. I am also the executive producer and host of the SHE VET™ iNSPIRES television show.”
“I deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. During my deployment, I faced many challenges, but one of the biggest was misogyny. As my deployment started, I had the courage to say something, but by the end of 16 months I served with very few females, I was beaten down and also became misogynistic.
“When I returned home I didn’t realize how much I had changed, and it wasn’t until years later when I was part of a competition against other female veterans that I was truly able to heal and forgive myself. I was able to apologize to some of my fellow female veterans.
“During my 10 years of service, I dealt with PTSD from my time as a gunner, cancer, receiving an Ileostomy and being raped by a battle buddy. All of those things I was able to work through, but the hardest has been loving myself for who I am and celebrating every woman for who they are.”
“When I enlisted in to the Army, I knew that my service to this country meant two things: giving up two lives–the one I was living and the one that I would’ve lived. I didn’t see my service to this country as a right or a privilege; rather, I saw it as a calling. It was a calling for a contribution and sacrifice of oneself to a country that sows and reaps the liberties and freedoms of a free world.
“The defining moment in my career happened when the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban took place. At that time, while the DADT repeal was an important moment in LGBTQ and military history, it did not include transgender service members. In 2012, I assisted in the movement that would allow open service for transgender service members in 2016. It was a self proclaimed decision that would change the course of my career and history and affect the community at large. My experiences in the military helped teach and shape the soldier, the leader, the veteran, the woman, the advocate and activist that I am today.
“Courage is the soldier who risks everything so that everyone can enjoy the liberties and freedoms that they deserve. Courage is the person who sees beyond gender identity, sexual orientation, religious preference and cultural difference. Courage is the leader who includes everyone at the round table, knowing everyone has an important role in the battle ahead. Courage is the transgender service member who decides to be visible, present and unapologetically authentic while having pride putting the uniform on every morning. Courage is taking the path less traveled and leading others to victory while doing it. I am an American Soldier, and I am proud to have served.”