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When I was a senior in high school, I was looking for a way out, I just didn’t know it yet. I thought having a job was enough, at the time. I was the typical teenager, filled with angst, worried about my future- even then, I knew I wanted to help people, which is why I was working in a nursing home. I was part of a program at my school that allowed us to work part-time and go to school too, called vocational health occupations education-VHOE. I wasn’t exactly happy with my home life, and figured I would never be allowed to grow up, as my parents were very overprotective. I usually walked or caught a ride to school, and they drove me to work, which I saw as unfair, since most of my friends were already driving.
Then one day in government class, a recruiter for the military came to speak to our class and a bell went off in my head. Here was my chance! Not only would I be able to help people, I would get to do it away from home…and serve my country, what a win, win! I immediately started the process of figuring out how to get myself into the Navy (I picked that branch because that’s where my dad served) and, because I was a very short woman, my government teacher helped me write all the necessary congressmen to make it happen.
See, at the time, the Navy had a height requirement of five foot and I am four foot nine. So this meant someone had to sign a waiver for me to be allowed to enter. My government teacher showed me an article where a man who was shorter than me got in, and the fight was on! The next thing I knew, my story reached the news, I was on the cover of the local newspaper and even had a radio interview (where I got to meet George Hamilton) explaining how I only wanted to serve my country and they wouldn’t let me in because I was a woman and I was short, yet a man got in who was shorter-it was size and sexual discrimination! We wrote all the local congressmen, Jim Wright, Lloyd Benson and the secretary of the Navy pleading for my case.
In the meantime, a recruiter for the Army reached out to me, and said I would only need a one inch waiver to get in, and reluctantly, I went ahead. I figured as long as I was allowed to be in the military, serving my country and helping people, it was still ok. I was disappointed it was not the Navy but my dad reassured me, his feelings weren’t hurt and, having his blessing, I went on with the plan. After discussing what type of job I wanted with the recruiter and the process I would go through to get in, it was decided that I would enlist right out of high school. I think I had two weeks between graduation and enlistment. (If memory serves, I believe the newspaper did a follow-up article showing I did indeed make it into a branch of the military.) Six weeks into my service, unbeknownst to me, my parents received a letter of acceptance from the Navy-I was not made aware of this fact until much later, blissfully otherwise engaged in my Army service, they figured I had fought so hard to get where I was, why upset the apple cart? I was livid when I found out, because what they didn’t realize was that I wouldn’t have lost any stripes or anything by switching branches, and now I was never going to get to go to Italy, one of the destinations my dad was anxious for me to see.
Regardless, I continued fulfilling my enlistment period, which was three years, as I was already done with basic training and AIT (the schooling you get before you go to your permanent party placement) and was set to be stationed in Colorado. I had enlisted as a combat medic, the Army’s version of a nurse in the field, and was set to start fulfilling my dream to serve my country and help people, just like I’d wanted. While on a training exercise in AIT, I had injured my knee, the first of a repeated injury I had over the years, and upon landing in Colorado, was in a half cast- not exactly the way I wanted to start my career, but there it was. Backing up for just a second, let me just say I had been a thorn in the Army’s side for quite a while by this point, first fighting to get in, then in basic, they had to let me skip my first march, because my uniform had to be specially made since I was so small. I didn’t exactly receive special attention, being a woman at a co-ed training station in Alabama, but life was tough for me because of my size, training was difficult…while everyone else was marching, I was running to keep up! My helmet was too big, so when the others were shooting at targets, I was fighting to be able to see, because my helmet kept falling over my eyes ( and the heat and humidity was so bad during the summer, we had to put salt tablets in our water canteens!) Somehow I made it through the grueling 6 week challenges, I even made sharpshooter and got that medal. I was also quite boy crazy and found myself getting quite a lot of attention from the opposite sex, since this was a co-ed training facility.
Luckily, I had my bff and partner in crime, Teresa. She and I made it through basic training and AIT together before we headed off to different permanent party stations, and I lost track of her. I still miss her to this day, and wonder often how her life turned out. We did everything together, including getting in trouble. Our drill sergeants knew we were a pair, our friendship got us through some crazy times back then. I hated that we were going in different directions, I thought we would be in each other’s life forever. I have tried to find her, but only knowing her maiden name (Smoyer) I have no way of locating her. I made new friends of course when I got to Colorado, but it just wasn’t the same.
I barely got settled at my new station in Colorado before my unit was deployed to California for a desert training mission. We were part of an assignment sent to help set up a medical dispensary in Ft Irwin, Ca. It is still one of the training centers for the Army today. At the time, however, there was barely anything there, our medical dispensary ( couple of wings of it anyway) a movie theater, snack bar, church, and combat training facility…not much for the guys to do but work, drink and get into trouble! Not sure how long our “mission” (training) was, six weeks I believe, and then it was back to beautiful Ft Carson Co. to finish out my year long tour of duty. During the time I was in the desert, I encountered my second bad experience as a woman in the military. The first had been the night I was being taken by my recruiter to the AFEES station to spend the night before being flown to Alabama for basic training. Both times I was propositioned, and both times ended badly for the men that did it. I was not going to be treated that way, just because I was a woman in the military. They were both reprimanded, the recruiter later lost his job and the officer I encountered in the desert was transferred ( I learned later he ended up at the hospital he wanted to be stationed anyway) but these things happened long after the incidents, mainly because I was scared to speak up each time. My dad told me I was just one of many the recruiter tried to have his way with, and was subsequently relieved of his duty many years later. It was definitely not the way I should have been introduced to the Army as a female, yet the theme was repeated many times throughout my career.
That was just part of the difficulties of being a woman, short or otherwise, in the Army, yet I made it through four and a half years, only getting out after several injuries made it impossible to continue my service. I was honorably discharged with a medical in 1984 and secured a job at my first hospital shortly after. My training was changed after my Colorado service to laboratory technician, due to all of my recurring knee injuries. That sent me back to my favorite place Ft Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. After my training was over there, I was sent to Korea for a yearlong tour of duty and that would have fulfilled my three year commitment, had I not re-enlisted. But that’s a story for another day.