Have you female veterans ever sat with a group of guys who have served, and been so bored and ignored that you finally got up and left? Did any one of them ever turn to you and say, “Hey, what did you do in the military?” or “Where were you sent?” or “How long were you in?” Probably not because the men veterans for the most part are content with their ‘service to their country’ as being pretty much the whole story in itself. Many of them have the mindset that women really don’t belong up close and alongside them because we will get in the way of the juggernaut, or won’t have lasting ability, or are simply the weaker sex….excuses by the numbers! So when we have done our time, come out with parity, we find them still clutching their ‘brotherhood’ to their chest.
So what are we? Well, we are now the “Invisibles”, the women who served their country in some distant chapter of their lives…their choice, you know….probably did a good job, too…but nothing they did changed the world, for sure…
Hmmm. Let me tell you about the WAVES, WACS, Marines, SPARS of WWII. We kicked the door open, kept it wedged that way for four years , then dropped back into a lifetime as the ‘Invisibles’. Back in 1942, we ‘invisibles’ were three hundred and fifty thousand women, citizens of the United States, who were desperately needed by our national defense system to turn World War II toward victory. We put on the uniform of our choice, Army, Navy, Marine or Coast Guard, went through the same training as the men and went to a duty assignment prepared to do every military job a man did so that large numbers of men could be freed up for combat. At the War’s end, we were given the same discharge and benefits as the men. However, discharge for the women meant that we lost not only our visibility but also our recognition as having ever been in the military. Out of sight, out of mind! We got colored gray. We were not welcome in the American Legion for many years because we hadn’t “fought in the War”. We were barred from belonging to the VFW because of not having served outside the territorial limits, by the way, a rule still in effect today!
Post WWII saw every level of our society re-gearing so that men could be assimilated back into employment; munitions factories could be transitioned into peacetime production; the financial world could move itself into a safer zone; and of course women could once again flourish as homemakers. (Their plan, not ours) Women who had served were actually granted the same five-point application bonus men were given, but with the expectation they would not be out and about taking the jobs the men needed. Yes, we had begun our liberation by proving our survival in the military world, However, the home world was not quite ready for that liberation. We found jobs that were neglectful of our service connected training. In our new gray gender color, we dove into the workforce as we had into the military, doing every task with double effort to prove that we could perform on a par with the men. But same song, umpteenth verse.
I really think this was pretty much when it happened – when we fell off the radar. We women who had served simply concluded that we had done our part in the communal War Effort; that a chapter of our lives was finished, and now we needed to quietly get about a new life of independence. We first female veterans accepted that we needed to blend and fade into whatever role was necessary in order to find the new normal for ourselves in the male working world.
Now please understand that we women genuinely deferred recognition to the men who came home with battle fatigue (PTSD). Because we didn’t. We willingly deferred to the men who came home wearing the wounds of battle because we didn’t. We stepped aside for the guys who came home with well-earned battle ribbons and medals because we didn’t. Then there were the thousands who did not come home, for whom we all grieved in accord. As for the women, our few thousand casualties were not the result of battle, obviously, but they did occur in the line of duty. We also had casualties.
This point must not be lost: the men carried the War on their backs, yes. However, our admission into the four branches of the military at a crucial time when victory was at stake, set the action as an historical precedent. We had fulfilled an emergent need!
A few years later when our uniformed women left stateside and went to Korea and Viet Nam, they were exposed to the same horrors as the men were. Still, once they became veterans, they got colored gray also. Their military history quickly became just that: History. Case in point, I recently watched a group of “veterans of the Korean conflict” get called to the front of the room for acknowledgment. A woman walked up with the men, nestled herself into the lineup. The group was addressed, “We want to thank all you men for your service in time of conflict.” The woman was not acknowledged for her 2 years in Korea working in a motor pool until the speaker got a whisper in his ear that yes, there was a lady veteran standing in that line. Ooops, sure that wasn’t someone’s wife up front with him?
Today, women in uniform have shattered the glass ceiling we crawled in under. They have become the total soldier, sailor, marine that we could only watch from our landlocked stateside jobs. But look, here it comes again: today’s women veterans still do not have accepted parity with male veterans . According to Iraq veteran Kayla Williams, author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army, “invisible” is the operative word when she sits as the only woman in a group of male Iraq veterans. She sits, listens, waits to gain acceptance as par. How ‘military’. How unchanged! How ‘Invisible’.
Kayla goes on to indicate that her status among male veterans is not considered to be real. It is her own word ‘invisible’ that describes her feeling among male veterans. The men appear to consider her trauma, her PTSD, her trouble with transitioning back into civilian life, to be less severe, not being like theirs somehow. The case is that in our current conflicts, women are living the same battles as the men, therefore experiencing much of the same physical, psychological and emotional issues in the aftermath.
I recently listened to a 30-year Air Force lady veteran recount her story of having signed up as a 19-year-old who was determined to make the service her career, and climb as high as she could by giving it her all, the whole way. As her story went, she had to do double what the men did on her way up to Staff Sgt. She had to over-prove herself at every step. Now that she’s retired, she also has joined the ‘invisibles’ meaning that her unique and amazing history is now colored gray, like mine, like ours. Her struggle to create a career despite overwhelming odds, and her determination to stick to her goals marked her as outstanding while in the service, but have little sticker value now as a woman veteran.
This operative word ‘invisible’ hadn’t struck a chord with me until recent years, when there has been a renewed interest in WWII veterans who are dying at the rate of 1200 a day, and taking with them those stories about surviving Pearl Harbor, or D-Day in Europe. That’s when I have found myself wanting to speak up for all those 350,000 women who have been quietly living with our memories, and thinking that accepting non-identity as being ‘just the way it is, is OK’. No, let’s not forget that we women were pivotal in a worldwide war. But most of all, let’s not forget that this phenomena that has been insidious for many generations, is still alive and functioning even as we speak.
Finally, on a lighter note, my WAVE uniform, which I wear proudly as an indicator of my history and my patriotism, has elicited some rare observations. At the office of an elementary school a secretary studied me, asked who I was and what I was there for. When I responded that I was talking to 5th graders about the women who served in World War II, she rather hesitatingly asked if I had been an airline hostess during the war. Another time a fairly young grocery store checker appraised my uniform, then asked if I was “with the Salvation Army”. Then there was the ‘carryout’ lad who, upon looking at my Oregon Veteran license plate asked if I was driving my husband’s car.
Oh well, maybe it’s better to drop the bar about this postulation and just stay invisible.
But I will keep my license plate. I am a proud pioneer woman in the United States Navy!
Margaret (Peggy) Parent Lutz
US Navy WAVE 1944-46, CTO 3/C
Author: NEVER SALUTE WITH A BROKEN GARTER Autobiography of WWII service
Editor: IT’S HARD TO SALUTE STANDING IN A WALL LOCKER Collection of personal
stories told by 16 WWII military women (1484 SW Nicole Drive, McMinnville, Oregon 97128 )
( 503-883-9297 email: firstname.lastname@example.org web: orewave.wordpress.com)