While the role of women in the United States' military remains up for debate -- with the first 13 female graduates of the U.S. Marine Corp enlisted infantry training course still barred from combat, and the possibility that even after the mandated "full integration" in January 2016, some "specialties" may still remain closed to women -- this Women's History Month, it's worth remembering that women have served in the United States military since its very inception -- and in nearly every conflict thereafter. As I discovered while researching my novel, I Shall Be Near To You, women have worked on the front lines as soldiers, nurses and spies; served time as prisoners of war; and suffered injuries, and even death, for their country as they struggled for the rights and freedom to participate fully in every aspect of American life.
Here, for posterity, are 13 women who have fought and served for their country:
Deborah Sampson (alias Robert Shurtliff) served as a light infantryman for the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment for 18 months during the Revolutionary War. She fought in several skirmishes, during which time she was wounded twice. To avoid detection, she removed a musket ball from her own thigh and returned to battle, eventually receiving an honorable discharge.
When the Mexican-American War broke out, Elizabeth Newcom (alias Bill Newcom) marched 600 miles from Missouri to the winter camp at Pueblo, Colorado as a member of Company D of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry. When she was discovered to be a woman, she was immediately discharged.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (alias Lyons Wakeman) served the Union Army for two years, one of over 200 documented female soldiers who served on both sides of the Civil War. Wakeman saw combat during the Red River campaign before succumbing to dysentery. Despite her month-long hospital stay, her identity remained a secret and she was buried as a man. Her letters home to her family are the only yet to be discovered by a female Civil War soldier.
Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, one of only a few female doctors practicing in Washington, D.C., first began organizing volunteer nurses to serve during the Spanish-American War for the Daughters of the Revolution in 1898. Her skills led to her appointment to Acting Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Army, making her the first woman to hold the position. She later drafted legislation that is credited with founding the Army Nurses Corps.
Frances Gulick, a U.S. YMCA welfare worker who spent at least 18 months abroad in France, stayed at her post running a canteen in Vernaise when was under aerial attack during WWI. The town saw many casualties and Gulick's canteen itself was bombed. For her valor and courage, she was awarded a United States Army citation.
Frances Nash was a WWII Army nurse. After the fall of Corregidor, she was held prisoner by the Japanese for three and a half years during which time she nearly starved to death. After her release, she continued serving in the Army Nurse Corps for 15 years and was awarded two Bronze Stars, two Oak Leaf Clusters, a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Unit Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Medal and a Prisoner of War Medal.
Mary Roberts Wilson, another WWII Army nurse, was deployed to the Battle of Anzio five days into the Allied invasion. Despite the danger and intense fighting, she refused to be evacuated and continued supervising several surgeries even as shrapnel tore through her hospital tent. Called the "Angel of Anzio," she survived the battle and was the first woman to earn a Silver Star for courage under fire.
Army nurse First Lieutenant Sharon Anne Lane cared for the Vietnamese in Ward 4 of the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, five days a week, 12 hours a day and spent her off-duty time volunteering in the Surgical ICU, where she was a favorite among her patients and fellow nurses. On June 8, 1969, she was hit by shrapnel and killed instantly during a rocket attack on her ward, becoming the first (and only) U.S. military woman to die from enemy fire in Vietnam.
Jeanne M. Holm became the first woman in the Air Force to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in 1971. During her service, she worked tirelessly to expand opportunities for women, such as allowing women to fully participate in ROTC programs, as pilots and in combat. She also collaborated with Ruth Bader Ginsberg when Ginsberg was a lawyer for the ACLU to gain military benefits for women.
Colonel Sally Murphy, a self-described tomboy who loved being an aviator in the Army, became the first female military helicopter pilot in 1974.
Hazel Johnson-Brown was promoted in 1979 to the position of Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, becoming the first African-American Brigadier General in the history of the armed forces. She commanded over 7,000 male and female nurses and today oversees eight Army medical centers, 56 community hospitals and 143 clinics in the U.S. and abroad.
US Navy Lieutenant Erica Niedermeier, described as "absolutely top drawer" by a male comrade, was one of 24 women who served on the USS Laboon in 1996. She became the first woman to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship in a combat zone, a distinction she said she was unaware of at the time and which was just part of her job.
Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester earned a Silver Star for combat action in 2005. When a group of over 30 Iraqi insurgents armed with assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a U.S. supply convoy outside of Baghdad, Sergeant Hester and handful of other Guard soldiers fought them off during a 90-minute firefight.