During Women’s History Month, VA celebrates valiant women Veterans of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Women have honorably served in the military for generations and continue to break barriers even today.
This month, VA is spotlighting a few of our nation’s valiant women Veterans to highlight their unique stories of courage, bravery and persistence.
Women Veterans of Yesterday
Women were not allowed to serve in the military during the American Revolution, but that didn’t stop them. Deborah Sampson was the first woman known to enlist in the Continental Army. She disguised herself as a man, served as an infantryman and was wounded in action.
Cathay Williams, also disguised as a man, was the first Black woman to enlist during the Civil War and the only known woman Buffalo Soldier. During World War I, about 35,000 women served as nurses and support staff.
Florence Blanchfield was instrumental in advocating for the law allowing full rank for nurses. She became the first woman to receive a military commission in the Army.
World War II saw a significant increase in women serving, especially in the Army and the Women’s Army Corps, where they performed critical jobs such as military intelligence, cryptography and parachute rigging.
At the forefront of computer programming
More than 1,000 women flew aircraft for the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Grace Hopper was a Naval Reservist during World War II. She was at the forefront of computer programming and devised the theory of machine-independent programming languages that was used to create COBOL, which is still used today.
In 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act granting women permanent status in the military, entitling them to the Veterans’ benefits they earned and deserved. Shortly thereafter, more than 7,000 American women deployed to Southeast Asia to support Vietnam War efforts.
Aida Nancy Sanchez, a Puerto Rican physical therapist, established the first physical therapy clinic at the 95th Evacuation Hospital near Da Nang, serving American and Cambodian soldiers. In 1978, only two years after the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs began accepting women students, Marcelite Harris became one of the first women to command at the Academy.
Women Veterans of Today
Throughout the Gulf War and post-9/11 era, service women and women Veterans accomplished many “firsts.” For example, in 1978, Kathy LaSauce became the first woman pilot to command a C-141 Starlifter. She also became the first woman to serve as a presidential support pilot.
Olga Custodio was the first Latina pilot in U.S. military history. While Custodio was serving in the Air Force Reserve, she flew for American Airlines. She was one of the first Latina commercial pilots, too.
Lanette Wright enlisted in 1989 and deployed to support Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Unified Protector. She became the first woman Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) sergeant major in the history of the Marine Corps.
Clara Adams-Ender was the first woman in the Army to qualify for the Expert Field Medical Badge, and the first Army nurse and the first Black woman to command a major Army base (Fort Belvoir, Virginia).
Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle
Women Veterans of Tomorrow
On Jan. 24, 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the military’s ban on women serving in combat. Today, every military occupational specialty (MOS) is open to women, and active duty service women continue to pave the path for future generations.
Sgt. 1st Class Leigh Ann Hester is the first woman awarded the Silver Star since World War II. She’s also the first ever woman to be cited for valor. The valor citation is for her actions during a close combat firefight in 2005 that took place outside Baghdad, Iraq.
In 2017, Capt. Marina Hierl became the first woman to complete the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course at Marine Corps Base Quantico, becoming the first woman Marine infantry officer.
First woman to fly the F-35A Lightning II in combat
In 2020, Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle became Navy’s first Black woman tactical jet pilot. Around the same time, Capt. Emily Thompson, an Air Force officer, became the first woman to ever fly the F-35A Lightning II in combat.
Women have shaped the history of the U.S. military. VA recognizes and celebrates these achievements.
Throughout March, VA is recognizing valiant women Veterans and the many VA women employees across social media channels.
Please join us on VA’s Facebook and Instagram (@DeptVetAffairs) and follow Center for Women Veterans to follow their extraordinary stories. Learn more about how VA is celebrating valiant women Veterans here.
Dr. Patricia Hayes is the chief officer for Women’s Health at the Veterans Health Administration.