By Bernadette Joy Graham, MA, LPCC, LLC
The Truth Contributor
Women have been serving in the U.S. armed forces for over 200 years in numerous roles and numerous conflicts. Just 10 years ago, in 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat and they were allowed to serve in direct roles of combat. Women since have graduated from Army Ranger School and Navy Seals training. Of course, during earlier years, segregation practices were still in place in the 1940’s and WWII. Black women were not excluded from serving in the armed forces but trained and worked together.
Stepping back further, and reported by the Wounded Warrior Program Project historians, there is only one known black female who was able to pass as a male due to the lack of care given during physical examinations of newly freed slaves; Cathay Williams. She is the only documented black woman to serve in the Army and in a unit as a soldier of the Buffalo Soldiers.
After the Civil War, newly freed slaves had very little job opportunities and Williams decided to stay in for medical benefits, education, and a pension. Unfortunately, Williams contracted small pox and visits back and forth to a medical unit a surgeon discovered her gender.
Once out of the Army, Williams kept her role as passing as a man and joined an infantry that later became a part of the Buffalo Soldiers. After many battles as part of that unit, again, the men found out and pushed her out of their regimen. She continued to work various jobs as a laundress and seamstress but William’s health declined after serving in the military with loss of hearing, rheumatism, amputations from diabetes and neuralgia. She had no choice but to apply for military disability pension but denied due to a doctor stating she did not deserve or qualify as she posed serving in the Army units as a man but was really a woman. She died in 1893 shortly after denial of compensation.
Air Force Veteran Irene Trowell-Harris served in the New York Air National Guard from 1963-1986 and 1994-2001 and the Air Force active duty 1987-1993. Of her many accomplishments, she wrote the book “Bridges: A Life Building and Crossing Them.” The story describes her challenges from working in a cotton field to earning her status as a two-star general. It also highlights the challenges and opportunities for a trailblazing woman of color as a commander and general officer in a predominantly male environment.
I served in the Air Force on active duty for five and a half years starting in 1990 and two years with the District of Columbia Air National Guard. I separated to complete my education and with an honorable discharge. I have no regrets and I honor those women especially of color who came before me to allow the opportunities I later received such as education benefits and medical care.
Women’s acceptance into the armed forces has come a long way, especially for women of color. I am often asked whose car am I driving due to having veteran status plates. Mental health diagnoses do not often differ due to gender but there are more male veterans than female veterans. If both genders are now in combat side by side, they may both return home to receive a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The role of women is not the same as that of men nor do we express the same hormones and societal norms? I think I answered that with my veteran status vehicle plates. Some women are mothers, some are wives, we go through menopause and have menstrual cycles and no one would think twice about us crying in public holding a gallon of ice cream. Many female veterans now have a box to check during appointments asking about military sexual trauma (MST) which if filing a claim for disability can be anything from sexual harassment to rape.
November 11 is Veteran’s Day. Take a mental health moment and think about the many women who have and still are putting their lives on the line for the USA. Also, think about how many children are missing their mother who is on active duty, or has lost their mother in combat or a tragic mental health diagnosis that causes negative behaviors.
To my lady veteran comrades, keep eating your ice cream, allow the tears to fall, hug your children at your worst feeling moments, drive your cars showcasing your veteran status and do not fall to a state of mind of victim if you were sexually assaulted or insulted. You had every right to defend and serve this country. Embrace your mental health if you are diagnosed with a disorder.
When Air Force veteran and author Irene Trowell-Harris was asked during an interview If she could choose one woman from any point in time to share a meal, whom would she choose? She responded none other than…..Sojourner Truth
If you are a newly returned home veteran or have been home for a while and need help please reach out for help and resources. https://www.myhealth.va.gov/mhv-portal-web/home
Contact Bernadette Graham at Graham.firstname.lastname@example.org