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
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
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.
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.
20 Women’s Memorial Register, Edna Acosta-Newson, Registration # 385266.
21 Women’s Memorial Register, Sonia Roca, Registration # 164043.
22 “The Choice: Women Officers Decide Whether to Sat In or Leave,” New York Times, May 5, 1985, SM32.
23 Women’s Memorial Register, Sylvia Gonzalez Maider, Registration # 385472.
24 Women’s Memorial Register, Maria Morales, Registration # 577699.
25 Women’s Memorial Register, Margarita Lopez Davis, Registration # 459117.
26 Women’s Memorial Register, Haydee Javier Kimmich, Registration # 535674.