A vet­eran de­bunks five myths about women who served.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Jerri Bell Twit­ter: @ja­bell27 Jerri Bell, a re­tired naval of­fi­cer, is a co-au­thor, with Tracy Crow, of “It’s My Coun­try Too: Women’s Mil­i­tary Sto­ries From the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion to Afghanistan.”

Vet­er­ans Day is an oc­ca­sion to re­call the service of our troops. But women’s sto­ries have of­ten been ab­sent from those rec­ol­lec­tions. Works of fic­tion and non­fic­tion, mem­oirs (such as Mary Jen­nings He­gar’s), doc­u­men­taries (in­clud­ing “The In­vis­i­ble War”) and dra­mas (such as “Blood Stripe”) have helped show this side of the armed forces. Still, myths about fe­male vet­er­ans en­dure. Kayla Wil­liams, who wrote a mem­oir about serv­ing as an Army lin­guist in Iraq, re­mem­bers an in­fantry­man who was “sure that women troops would be flown by he­li­copter to shower ev­ery three days.” Here are some of the most per­sis­tent mis­con­cep­tions.

MYTH NO. 1 There aren’t that many fe­male vet­er­ans.

The Na­tional Vet­er­ans Foun­da­tion re­ported this year that, be­cause of stereo­types about vet­er­ans, per­haps de­vel­oped from movies and tele­vi­sion, “when most peo­ple think of ‘vet­er­ans,’ they think of men.” A 2014 re­port from Dis­abled Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans noted “the en­dur­ing per­cep­tion that a wo­man who comes to VA for ser­vices is not a vet­eran her­self, but a male vet­eran’s wife, mother, or daugh­ter.”

Congress es­tab­lished a reg­u­lar women’s com­po­nent in all branches of the armed forces in 1948 but capped women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion at 2 per­cent of the to­tal force. This kept the num­bers of fe­male vet­er­ans pro­por­tion­ally low un­til the cap was lifted in­cre­men­tally, be­gin­ning in 1973, to en­able the cre­ation of an all-vol­un­teer force. Women now make up 20 per­cent of new re­cruits, 15 per­cent of the ac­tive-duty force and 18 per­cent of the re­serve and Na­tional Guard. Al­most 280,000 women have served in Op­er­a­tions En­dur­ing Free­dom, Iraqi Free­dom and New Dawn. More than 2 mil­lion vet­er­ans — about 9 per­cent of the to­tal vet­eran pop­u­la­tion of 21 mil­lion — are women.

MYTH NO. 2 Amer­i­can women be­gan serv­ing in com­bat re­cently.

Many hold the mis­per­cep­tion that “of­fi­cial mil­i­tary pol­icy has long kept fe­male service mem­bers away from the front lines,” as a His­tory Chan­nel es­say put it. And it’s true that two pro­vi­sions in the Women’s Armed Ser­vices In­te­gra­tion Act of 1948 pro­hib­ited Navy, Air Force and Ma­rine Corps women from com­bat Air Force sor­ties and naval ves­sels (they were already barred from di­rect ground com­bat). In 1998, an am­bigu­ous De­fense Depart­ment rule closed non­com­bat po­si­tions to women if the risk of ex­po­sure to di­rect fire, com­bat or cap­ture equaled or ex­ceeded that ex­pe­ri­enced by com­bat units in the same the­ater of op­er­a­tions.

But women have fought for this coun­try as long as it has ex­isted. In April 1775, a 35-yearold mother of six named Pru­dence Cum­mings Wright formed a women’s mili­tia in Pep­perell, Mass. Dressed in men’s cloth­ing and armed, the women cap­tured a sus­pected Bri­tish courier at the bridge over the Nashua River and de­liv­ered him and his doc­u­ments to the re­bel­lion. At the Bat­tle of Fort Wash­ing­ton in 1776, Mar­garet Corbin took over her hus­band’s gun when he was killed. Dis­abled by grapeshot that nearly sev­ered her arm, she was placed in the Con­ti­nen­tal Army’s In­valid Reg­i­ment at West Point, drew a life­time mil­i­tary pen­sion and was rein­terred at West Point with full mil­i­tary hon­ors in 1926. In 1778, a Cre­ole wo­man named Sally St. Clare fought dis­guised as a man and be­came the first wo­man to die in ac­tion in the service of Amer­ica. And his­to­ri­ans es­ti­mate that at least 200 women dis­guised them­selves as men to fight on both sides in the Civil War.

Since the estab­lish­ment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, Amer­i­can women have served over­seas, un­der fire and at the front lines in ev­ery ma­jor U.S. mil­i­tary con­flict.

MYTH NO. 3 The Pen­tagon in­te­grated women as a so­cial ex­per­i­ment.

In the 1990s, con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist Elaine Don­nelly ac­cused Rep. Pa­tri­cia Schroeder and “her fem­i­nist friends at the Pen­tagon” of try­ing to “un­der­mine readi­ness and morale for the sake of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing” by open­ing com­bat bil­lets to women “to ad­vance the ca­reer am­bi­tions of a few.” This idea had stay­ing power: In 2013, re­tired Army Gen. Jerry Boykin re­peated a ver­sion of it to CNN. It re­curs al­most daily in the com­ments on mil­i­tary-re­lated news sites, blogs and so­cial­me­dia pages.

In fact, the ac­tivism of mil­i­tary women is what drove the ex­pan­sion of their roles. Doc­tor Mary Ed­wards Walker, awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865 for her work as a mil­i­tary sur­geon and spy, wrote in 1859 that women should serve as sol­diers. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.), who served in the Red Cross in Eu­rope dur­ing World War I, and Rep. Mar­garet Chase Smith (R-Maine), who later joined the Air Force, crafted the 1948 leg­is­la­tion es­tab­lish­ing per­ma­nent women’s com­po­nents in the armed forces. Hun­dreds of women in uni­form as­signed to per­son­nel com­mands lob­bied qui­etly for in­cre­men­tally greater op­por­tu­ni­ties. Navy elec­tri­cian Yona Owens, Army he­li­copter pi­lot Mary Jen­nings He­gar and other mil­i­tary women even sued the U.S. gov­ern­ment to open chances for women to serve legally on naval com­bat­ants and in di­rect ground com­bat.

MYTH NO. 4 Women are less able to meet the mil­i­tary’s de­mands.

We’ve come a long way since 1979, when for­mer Ma­rine and fu­ture Navy sec­re­tary Jim Webb ar­tic­u­lated this idea in a misog­y­nis­tic rant in Wash­ing­to­nian. Still, in Septem­ber 2015, the Ma­rine Corps sought an ex­emp­tion from then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon Panetta’s 2013 di­rec­tion to in­te­grate women fully into ev­ery branch of the armed forces; the Marines cited a study that claimed to have found mixed-gen­der units slower, less lethal and un­able to evac­u­ate ca­su­al­ties as rapidly as all­male units. Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus re­jected the Ma­rine Corps re­quest to ex­clude women from in­fantry bil­lets.

The 1994 De­fense Women’s Health Re­search Pro­gram, a $40 mil­lion ini­tia­tive that funded re­search tar­geted at im­prov­ing the health and per­for­mance of women in the armed forces, demon­strated more than a decade ago that women equal men in their abil­ity to tol­er­ate grav­ity forces, re­spond to stress and sur­vive in ex­tremes of heat and cold. A 2015 Army study found no rea­son to ex­clude women from any mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tional spe­cialty as long as they mea­sured up to newly es­tab­lished phys­i­cal stan­dards for their jobs. A few women have already met the phys­i­cal, aca­demic and lead­er­ship stan­dards for the Army’s de­mand­ing Ranger School and the Ma­rine Corps In­fantry Of­fi­cer Course.

MYTH NO. 5 The typ­i­cal home­less vet­eran is a man.

In a 2014 study by the vet­er­ans ad­vo­cacy group Got Your 6, al­most half of the adult Amer­i­cans who were shown a photo of a man who ap­peared to be home­less iden­ti­fied him as a vet­eran. The stereo­type per­sists: a white man, of­ten a Viet­nam-era vet­eran, pan­han­dling with a card­board sign at an in­ter­sec­tion and sleep­ing un­der a high­way over­pass or on the streets. He has long-term men­tal health is­sues and/or sub­stance use dis­or­ders. Vet­er­ans ad­vo­cate Lily Ca­sura found in a na­tion­wide sur­vey of thou­sands of fe­male vet­er­ans that even these vet­er­ans, 40 per­cent of whom had them­selves ex­pe­ri­enced home­less­ness, re­peated such de­tails when asked to de­scribe a home­less vet­eran.

In fact, the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs has found that fe­male vet­er­ans — in­clud­ing those with chil­dren — are the fastest-grow­ing share of home­less vet­er­ans. Based on VA es­ti­mates, be­tween 20,000 and 40,000 fe­male vet­er­ans are home­less. But most of these women, es­pe­cially those with kids or his­to­ries of trauma, don’t sleep on the streets or find shel­ter place­ments. They pre­fer to couch-surf with friends and rel­a­tives. Ca­sura dis­cov­ered in her sur­vey that fe­male vet­er­ans are two to four times as likely as their civil­ian coun­ter­parts to ex­pe­ri­ence home­less­ness.

SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A cer­e­mony marks the 20th an­niver­sary of the Women in Mil­i­tary Service for Amer­ica Memo­rial on Oct. 21 at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

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