Every one is a veteran of something because you have done it for some time, but being a Veteran because you have raised your right hand to serve your country, uphold its Constitution, and protect it from enemies from within and without, is quite a different matter. You are allowed to wear that uniform that sets you apart and requires much of you.
Military service was not on my planned life’s journey itinerary. That is, until a young female naval officer came to talk to the girls in her former high school in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Those girls just happened to be in my physical education and biology classes. These kids were among those I taught in my first teaching job.
I was a mere 21. She talked of the War, the Navy, the opportunity, but most of all the duty. It was early 1943; Pearl Harbor was still a raw subject. The War in the Pacific was horrific. The War in Europe was difficult. The young naval officer was not a recruiter; she was just a citizen turned patriot. She was going to do whatever she could to help those brave men aboard the ships, the planes, and the landing barges that carried the men to islands in the Pacific that became infamous and those that sometimes weren’t even named on the maps of the world.
The Navy needed physical education instructors to work with the physical fitness of the WAVES, the women in the Navy, she said. I could do that; I could serve my country. After I enlisted, I was sent to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for my physical. During my interview, the officer suggested that I was too young to be an officer. In my youth, I became enraged and gave a lecture to her on the lack of relationship between age and maturity. She was not pleased, decided to rid herself of the upstart, and sent me to take the physical. Having been blessed with good health coupled with my attention to my fitness, the physical was a breeze.
I raised my right hand, repeated the words of the oath, and I was in the Navy. I thought that I would be able to finish out the school year, but that was not to be. I was called to my first duty base in May, 1943.
Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, was like a foreign country to this small town girl from Iowa and the pheasant filled prairies of South Dakota. It is a beautiful and elite women’s college. The town was definitely a cultural adventure for me. We ate at the famous Inn in the city. I came to understand that the food was extraordinary. But then I only knew lobsters existed because I studied Biology in college. I came to relish the new things to explore. It did not take long to appreciate the fine cuisine at the Inn.
I came also to understand the uniqueness of the women with whom I served. I was one of very few with just a bachelors degree; most had masters and doctorates. It was amazing to learn what people had left to raise their right hand. So many left very prestigious positions. It truly was an interesting, diverse mix of women who had accomplished much in their civilian lives; I did not truly understand how much until after the War when I came to understand fully the glass ceiling.
As the training came to a close, we all eagerly awaited our “orders.” Mine took me to the Naval Air Technical Training Center at Millington, Tennessee, not far from Memphis. It was a huge base with a Naval Air Station across the street and a Naval Hospital just down the street. The military during the War was a great melting pot and equalizer. The uniform of the United States Navy or Marine Corps was the same for celebrity, teacher, farmer, business executive, movie star, football coaches and football stars, famous chefs and photographers, holders of gold medals, the college grad, or the kid who dropped out of school. Insignia told you what they were doing, but most certainly not where they were from. But we all took the same oath.
Yes, I am proud to be a veteran. I have been able to speak of my pride when folks express surprise that I was in the Navy. Some seem to think that women in the armed services were quite different from those that I knew. My children know that I am proud; I know they are, too. My grandchildren know that I am proud; I know they are, too. My friends know, my colleagues know, and any shipmates I meet certainly know. The sports guy who wants to stop playing the national anthem at sports events will never know or understand my pride. Too bad. His loss.
America, feel my pride. I am just one among so many. But I am ONE. As long as I have voice and pen, I will tell you about my pride. Do not ignore those who would silence the pride of those who know it. And above all, preserve the voice of those who served and paid the price of the silent voice. They rest with pride; we must be their voice, too.