Writing Life – July 4, 1994 (aboard HMS Sheffield)

My deployment journal. It's a thick book, but only 90 pages are written on. My diary entries are sparse and dull - hope my intel products were better!

My deployment journal. It’s a thick book, but only 90 pages are written on. My diary entries are sparse and dull – hope my intel products were better!

After spending time reading some entertaining, amusing, and moving diaries of American servicewomen, I thought I’d go back and re-read my own diary from my deployment to the Barents Sea on HMS Sheffield in 1994. The Sheffield deployment was special. Only one American intelligence officer was selected to ride a British combatant as the U.S. liaison officer for that mission each year – usually the officer in the billet at the Atlantic Intelligence Command that I had been filling.

I had to fight to get that deployment. My supervisor wanted to send a man, one of the lieutenants that I’d been supervising for the past year. No American woman had ever made that deployment. I appealed over his head to the commander (O-5) in charge of our section. The Royal Navy, I pointed out, had opened service on all its combatant vessels to women in 1990, so the host nation had no restrictions. Clinton had repealed the Combat Exclusion Law in 1993, so no American law prevented me from going. While women were not permanently assigned to American naval combatants yet, a few were in the training pipeline, and I’d gone out on an American naval combatant as a “ship rider” – extra staff for the ship’s intelligence shop – earlier that year for a naval exercise. I had extensive experience working with the Royal Navy from the earliest days of my first tour of duty; I knew some of the staff in the intelligence section of the Royal Navy headquarters because of my duties in the job that I was filling; and I’d been to London to brief British submarine crews at the Ministry of Defence before their deployments. The male officer that my supervisor wanted to send had no experience working with foreign counterparts at all. As it turned out, the senior intelligence officer assigned for Sheffield‘s mission was a woman: Lieutenant Commander Carol Tyrrell. That may have been the deciding factor. The commander bought my arguments and signed my orders. I joined ship for workups on the 21st of June.

bookI must have been a little bit worried about spending July 4th aboard a Royal Navy vessel. Before I left – this was long before ships at sea could connect to the Internet, and three years before the creation of the Google search engine – I copied the entire text of the Declaration of Independence into the first pages of my journal. Our British counterparts are our closest military allies, and yet the relationship is not entirely an easy one. In 1942 the U.S. War Office printed a little handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain – a kind of etiquette guide introducing British customs. The War Department dispensed excellent advice to American G.I.s about avoiding offense to their already war-weary counterparts, whose belts had long been tightened and whose salaries were low. The book also directed G.I.s not to brag that U.S. troops had come over and “won the last one” for them.

(The U.S. War Office also offered this interesting commentary on British servicewomen:

British Women at War. A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and ‘carried on.’ There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.

“Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.”)

My diary entry was…disappointing. I didn’t think of myself as a writer of anything but intelligence products in those days, and had no idea what interesting tidbits I’d wish two decades later that I’d recorded. It says only: “A little ribbing and a lot of good wishes from the crew on Independence Day.” I think they sang “The Star Spangled Banner” for me at dinner that night: the officers’ mess on Sheffield was a jolly, collegial place. We always had a soup course and wine with our evening meal, and there was much laughter. Sometimes there was even singing, led by the weapons officer – an excellent pianist and baritone.

L-R: The senior cryptologist; the annoying lieutenant; me; Commander Gillespie; don't remember the man second from right - he may have been the operations officer; and Lieutenant Commander Tyrell.

L-R: The senior cryptologist; the annoying lieutenant; me; Commander Gillespie, commanding officer of HMS Sheffield; don’t remember the man second from right; and Lieutenant Commander Tyrell. The helicopter is one of the two zippy little Westland Lynx assigned to our helo det. Riding in it was great fun.

I finished up the page with a description of how admired and respected the commanding officer, Commander Simon Gillespie, seemed to be among the crew: he’d spent more than an hour in Combat Control early that morning, and the watch section clearly enjoyed his company. There was also a short note about the other British intelligence lieutenant, my counterpart. I’d noticed early in workups that he hadn’t been trained as an all-source intelligence analyst or briefer, and that he didn’t seem to understand how to read the intelligence traffic; he was also a year or so junior to me. But as a host national and a man he seemed to expect deference, even if his facts and analysis were dead wrong. He was not interested in collaborating on briefings or products, or in anything I’d learned in five years of intense study and daily observation of Russian naval operations in the Barents Sea. I also think I was rather unkind to him after a few disagreeable incidents. In retrospect, he probably understood better than I did that we were in a sort of competition, even if we weren’t being ranked against each other on formal evaluations. He was wanted to appear brilliant and to advance his career in his own navy, of course, and I wanted an enthusiastic recommendation from a seagoing commander that would help me lobby for permanent assignment to a U.S. naval combatant when the billets opened up in 1995. I could have been more gracious. So could he. But on that the Fourth of July, he at least “stayed out of my hair all day.”

The diary page ends: “Happy 218th, America.”

Happy 239th, America. And Happy Fourth to you readers out there. Be safe and enjoy the day!




Posted in Nonfiction, Writing Life | 4 Comments

Bibliography Update

The book section in the gift shop of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

The book section in the gift shop of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

Today I revisited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial to investigate the contents of the bookshelves in the gift shop. In addition to M. L. Doyle’s biography of General Julia Cleckley, which is already on the P&F bibliography page, I found thirty-seven volumes of memoir and history written by women veterans. Most were written by veterans of World War II, and many were self-published. Many of the ones in the gift shop inventory are signed by the authors.

The cashier was very pleasant and patient with my two-hour inventory of her bookshelves, though I suspect that I worried her. Especially when I plopped down on the floor to investigate the lower shelves, and made myself comfortable!

I got the gift shop manager’s name and phone number from the cashier. Maybe I can convince her to offer a few contemporary (OEF/OIF) books; the selection on the shelves at the store doesn’t include any commercially-published women veterans’ books from OEF/OIF. It may be a budget issue. Stay tuned!

Below is the list – I’ll be integrating it into the bibliography page of the site, but wanted to highlight the books in a blog post first. All but two or three are available through Amazon. As always, though, I encourage you to request orders through your local independent bookseller.

Civil War

Velazquez, Loreta Janeta. The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Velazquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier. (Jacket notes suggest that this may be fictionalized autobiography…or not.) University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

World War II

Bessey, Carol Hossner. Battle of the WAC. CHB Publishing, 1999. (Memoir.)

Burrell, Prudence (Hathaway) Burns. Hathaway. Harlo, 1997. (Memoir, African-American nurse who was not allowed to treat white patients because of her race.)

Camp, LaVonne Telshaw. Lingering Fever: A World War II Nurse’s Memoir. McFarland, 2012.

Ferris, Inga Fredriksen. A Few Good Women: Memoirs of a World War II Marine. Trafford Publishing, 2006.

García Rosado, Carmen. Las WACS: Participación de la Mujer Boricua en la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Appears to have been published in Puerto Rico in 2007. (Nonfiction, in Spanish. I didn’t have time to parse through the Spanish carefully, but I think it’s a scholarly work about the two hundred Puerto Rican women recruited into the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, rather than a memoir. The author was one of those women.)

Gott, Kay. Hazel Ah Ying Lee, Women AirForce Service Pilot, World War II: A Portrait. Kay Gott, 1996. (Biography; WASPs.)

Hall, Nona Jane. Our Home on the Hill, 1943-1946. Chugiak, Alaska: Northbooks, 2006. (Memoir, USMC.)

Haydu, Bernice “Bee” Falk. Letters Home, 1944-1945. Unknown publisher, 2008. (Memoir; WASPs.)

Henderson, Aileen Kilgore. Stateside Soldier: Life in the Women’s Army Corps 1944-1945. University of South Carolina Press, 2001. (Memoir in diary and letters)

Herron, Berneice A. Dearest Folks: Sister Leatherneck’s Letter Excerpts and WWII Experiences. iUniverse, 2006. (Memoir, USMC)

Hodgson, Marion Stegeman. Winning My Wings: A Woman Airforce Service Pilot in World War II. Bright Sky Press, 2005. (Memoir, WASPs.)

Holm, Major General Jeanne M. (USAF, Ret.) In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II. Vandamere Press, 1998. (History.)

Jopling, Lucy Wilson. Warrior in White. Watercress Press, 1990. (Memoir, Army nurse.)

Kelly, Emma Chenault. Emmaline Goes to War: A Historic and Entertaining Account of One of the Most Trying Times in U.S. History…from a WAC’s Viewpoint. BLT & J Publications, 1992. (I’m not sure if that subtitle is part of the book’s official title, but I liked it so much that I included it anyway.)

Larson, Effie Ruth. I Served Uncle Sam in World War II. Vantage Press, 1996. (Memoir; WAC.)

Lockwood, Allison McCrillis. Touched with Fire: An American Community in World War II. Daily Hampshire Gazette, 1993. (History of World War II in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, written by a former Army public affairs officer.)

Loving, Gerry A. Girl in a Pink Skirt. 1st Book Library, 2003. (Memoir; WAC.)

Pullman, Sally Hitchcock. Letters Home: Memoirs of One Army Nurse in the Southwest Pacific in World War II. AuthorHouse, 2004.

Putney, Martha S. When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II. Scarecrow Press, 1992. (Scholarly; written by a professor of history who had served in the WAAC/WAC.)

Reed, Hazel Andrews. My Twentieth Century: The Autobiography That Inspires Others to Keep Moving! Rainbows End Co., 2007. (Memoir, WAAC, lots of great photos.)

Robinson, Harriet Green. The Gaylord WACs. Laurel Press, 2001. (Memoir.)

Sforza, Eula Awbrey. A Nurse Remembers. Eula Awbrey Sforza, 1991. (Memoir)

Thursten, Doris “Joy.” A WAC Looks Back: Recollections and Poems of WWII. Norvega Press, 1996. (What’s not to love about a title like that? Memoir – with poems!)

Webb, Pauline Denman. Letters from Tinian 1945. Xlibris, 2009. (Memoir)

Wehry, Maxine Cardinal. A Kindred Spirit. CreateSpace, 2012. (Memoir, USMCWR)


Ruggieri, Mary A. (Kiddie). From Japan With Love: A Remarkable Memoir of Post-War Japan, Told in Letters and Photographs. Portsmouth Publishing, 2007.

Korean Conflict

Omori, Frances. Quiet Heroes: Navy Nurses of the Korean War 1950-1953 Far East Command. Smith House Press, 2001.


Earls, Linda S. Vietnam I’m Going! Letters from a Young WAC in Vietnam to her Mother. XLibris, 2012. (Memoir through letters.)

Cold War

Anderson, Ruth M. and J. M. (Andy) Anderson. Barbed Wire for Sale: The Hungarian Transition to Democracy, 1988-1991. Poetic License, 1999. (Memoir; USAF, Attaché Program, Hungary.)

Cummings, Mary Lou. Hornet’s Nest: The Experience of One of the Navy’s First Female Fighter Pilots. iUniverse Inc., 2000. (Memoir: 1988-1998.)

Dickerson, Debra J. An American Story. Anchor, 2001. (Memoir, USAF, African-American woman, sexual trauma.)

Diekman, Diane J. Navy Greenshirt: A Leader Made, Not Born. Alturia Publishing, 2001. (Memoir; 1970s.)

Disher, Sharon Hanley. First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy. Annapolis, MD: Bluejacket Books, 2013. (History; USNA integration.)

McAleer, Donna. Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line. Fortis Publishing, 2010. (History; USMA integration.)

Desert Shield/Desert Storm

Figueroa, Denise. The Most Qualified: A Nurse Reservist’s Experience in the Persian Gulf War. Vantage Press, 2002. (Memoir.)

Kassner, Elizabeth. Desert Storm Journal: A Nurse’s Story. Cottage Press, 1993. (Memoir.)


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Call for Submissions

O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of The Veterans Writing Project, is pleased to call for submissions from women veterans who write for an upcoming (February 2016) themed issue of O-Dark-Thirty/The Review: Women Veterans’ Writing.

Guidelines: The editors will consider short stories (up to 5,000 words; 3,500 and under is better), creative nonfiction/essay (same word limit), poems, and short plays. Excerpts from memoirs and novels are acceptable if the excerpt stands alone as a story in its own right. Please limit submissions to one prose piece or a batch of up to three poems. Work is not required to be on a military theme!

Deadline: The submission deadline is October 31. Earlier is better. Please submit work through our online submissions manager.

I’m keeping a watch for interesting submissions from women veterans already, but it would help my aging eyes if you note in your cover letter that you’re submitting work to be considered for the 2016 themed issue.

If you’re a woman veteran and you write, I hope you’ll consider submitting work to us. I’ll be reading all the submissions for this issue personally, and I look forward to reading anything you send!

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The Writing Life: Hurry Up and Wait…

After twenty years in the Navy, I know how to “hurry up and wait.” But knowing how doesn’t make it any easier – especially when it comes to my writing.

Back in December, I finished writing and revising five short stories. They’re all related – they take place in or around the Navy in the early- to mid-1990s, and they’re all stories about women: enlisted, officer, wife, one-night-stand picked up in a bar in a foreign port. They’re stories that come out of my personal experience, out of what matters most to me when I put down my Navy experience on paper to try to make sense of it, and out of what novelist Harper Lee calls the author’s “divine discontent.” It felt urgent to get the stories down on paper. Four of them were written in a private workshop with a published writer whose work I admire and whose feedback I respect; I revised them carefully, with extreme attention to every suggestion she made for improvement. I’m confident that I’ve never written anything more honest, or anything better.

By mid-January, I’d revised them all at least four or five times and submitted them to the “top level” of my long-shot lit journals and contests. I made notes and partial rough drafts of another seven or eight related stories, and applied for a residency that would give me a couple of weeks of solitude early in the summer to draft and revise and get the whole thing ready to submit for publication as a collection. I planned the next tier of submissions, in anticipation of the inevitable rejections. (There are always rejections.) Then the waiting started.

I’m an editor for a lit journal, so I know exactly what’s happening to my stories when they pop up in another journal’s Submittable queue. I know why it will take most of those journals and contest managers so long to read my work and respond. I empathize with them. And I know from almost ten years of writing and submitting that the only way to get through the waiting period is to forget about the stories that are out for consideration, and to keep working on other things.

So I made up a schedule for finishing the other stories, and forced myself to work on them for at least an hour every day. Nothing was coming out right. Then the first couple of rejections trickled back in. I set aside the stories and made myself work for at least a few hours a day on two other, less urgent projects.

Finally it was time to go on spring break travel with my family. I thought that a week of sun, sand, surf, margaritas, and Mayan ruins would be enough to distract me from calendar-watching. I bought a book of Gabriel García Márquez stories in Spanish, downloaded a dictionary onto my iPad, and planned to spend the week reading and forgetting all about those pesky stories and submissions. I resolved that I would come back from vacation newly motivated to finish the rest of the stories. That was when the trouble really started, though.

There’s a point in every “hurry up and wait” drill where the mission seems pointless and self-doubt creeps in. Officer Candidate School was like that for me. I spent the entire sixteen weeks alternating between impatience with the classes and drills, and terror that I wasn’t cut out to be a naval officer and would be exposed as either inadequate or a fraud. Our battalion chief (aka drill sergeant) was the first sailor ever to make it through Marine Corps Drill Instructor School, and he had the toughest reputation in Newport. He was emaciated, a marathon runner, and a boatswain’s mate – one of the most macho ratings in the Navy. He apparently never slept. He skewered me with an owlish stare every time I dropped out of PT to catch my breath or stretch a too-tight muscle. He addressed me only as “Hey, Girl!” for the first fourteen weeks of OCS. (The men all had names, which he bellowed at top volume and followed with “Drop and give me fifty!” Even though he dropped me for fifty push-ups at least as often as everyone else, he didn’t seem to think it was worth the effort to remember and use my name. I was going to fail, and my name would never be preceded by the rank of “Ensign.”) Every day I expected the Chief to get in my face and tell me that he knew I was a fake. That my military bearing would never be satisfactory. That he knew that the bronchitis diagnosis I convinced the flight surgeon to give me after I’d dropped out of a five-mile run in January was a cover for cold weather-induced asthma, which should have disqualified me from service. That I would never meet the physical fitness standards even though the only test I’d failed was the burning-oil swim (which I later passed, thanks to the inspirational underwater view: the muscular legs of the SEAL who supervised the extra instruction sessions).

That same self-doubt always creeps in when I’m waiting for acceptances or rejections, and it hit me hard this week. Who do I think I am to call myself a writer, when in ten years of writing I’ve had exactly two pieces published in lit journals and won a few prizes over years of entering my work in a regional writing contest? Where do I get off asking respected journals to publish my work? Why do I think that I’ll finish these short stories, or that anyone would want to read them if I did? Some real writer is going to get in my face one of these days and tell me I’m a fake, that I’ll never get these stories published, that I don’t belong in the writing and publishing community with the real writers. All I have to do is hurry up and wait for it to happen.

Week Fourteen at OCS was the make-or-break physical fitness test, with the most stringent standards. The mile-and-a-half run was three laps around the parade ground, set on a slope between the residence hall and the classroom building. I ran the first lap and felt my airways starting to close down. I slowed to a walk. Suddenly, there was the Chief right beside me. “Officer Candidate Bell,” he said. (The Chief knew my name!) “I’ve been watching you these last fourteen weeks. You might have to drop back and catch your breath once in a while, but you’ve never quit. And you’ve come too far to quit now. Come on – I’ll pace you. I’ll run the last mile with you.” He did. And I passed. Two short weeks later, I pulled the black electrical tape off the shiny, new ensign stripes on my service dress blues and took my first salute – from the Chief.

I am a real writer, whether or not my new stories get published. I have faith that while they will collect their fair share of rejections, eventually they will find good homes in print. And there’s nothing to do while I hurry up and wait but get back to work, even if the writing doesn’t seem to be going well.

While I write, I’m going to conjure the image of the Chief sitting beside me in his gonna-kick-your-ass-you-pathetic-wannabe drill instructor hat – the one he earned after someone made the mistake of telling him that sailors weren’t tough enough to run with the Marines at Drill Instructor School.

“Hey, Girl!” I’ll hear him saying. “Officer Candidate Bell! You’ve come too far to quit now. Come on – I’ll pace you. I’ll write the last pages with you.”

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“Every Servicewoman’s Story Is Important!”

I recently visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, DC. Public spaces in a nation’s capital tell the “official” story of that country to the rest of the world, and the architects and planners of Washington, DC have been aware of that since L’Enfant first laid out the design for the capital of the new nation in 1791. I wondered: What story is being told in Washington about women and military service? Who’s telling that story? How would one of the harried Iowans getting off a tour bus at Arlington National Cemetery – where the Memorial is located – experience that story?

During a twenty-year career in the Navy, half of it spent in DC, I only went to the Memorial once. At my first stateside duty station, a colleague gave me a brochure requesting a donation and my registration at the recently-dedicated Memorial. I sent neither. I was paying off my ensignmobile and a student loan the size of an aircraft carrier. More importantly, back then we were working so hard to convince our male colleagues to treat us as equals that any kind of monument suggesting that women were special and different seemed like a giant step backwards. Tailhook was still an oozing wound in the Navy psyche, and women serving in the armed forces were still in the thick of the fight for equality. Shouldn’t the memorial be built after the war was over and won? Many years later, when another colleague I barely knew chose the Memorial for her retirement ceremony, I didn’t linger afterwards to look at the exhibits. Work was piling up back in the office, and my feet hurt from the long walk from the parking area to the Memorial in the low-heeled pumps that I almost never wore.  I had to retire and give myself time for reflection before I could understand why the stories of women’s military service and how they were told mattered.

The façade of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, with Arlington House in the background. March 2015.

The façade of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, with Arlington House in the background. March 2015.

So on a cool, sunny March day, this time in civilian clothes and comfortable shoes, I found myself at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery looking down the long access road to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The structure looks like a cross-section of a Brunelleschi drawing – four Roman arches on either side of an apse topped with a half-dome, all in beautiful neoclassical proportions and glowing white granite – and the road leads straight toward it. The effect is somber and majestic; the design suggests that the structure commemorates something important with its origins in classical antiquity. But there is no statuary anywhere outside the structure, no placard or marquee informing the casual visitor of the Memorial’s existence. The doors aren’t visible from the road or even the empty hemispherical plaza in front of the Memorial – it isn’t apparent that there’s anything at all behind the granite façade. There isn’t even an American flag, that symbol of the Constitution we all swore to protect and defend: most veterans consider a flag de rigeur for any military post or museum. The visitor’s eye is drawn immediately to Arlington House, on the hill above and behind the Memorial, where hordes of schoolchildren swarm around a huge flagpole waiting for their tour group to be called. The Memorial could easily be mistaken for an attractive but unimportant part of a ceremonial entry gate to Arlington. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Oscar?

I went into two arches before I found the glass door into the Memorial. It’s so dark in the gallery that the gold lettering on the glass door hardly showed up. Inside, a long granite-topped counter that might have been a welcome desk was unmanned. A few brochures – one requesting registration and donation, the others unrelated to the Memorial – were strewn haphazardly next to a large foil warming pan of food probably intended for the reception after a retirement or promotion ceremony. A tiny, dark gift shop was tucked into a corner: a woman at the register was busy folding t-shirts.

Nothing marked the entrance to the Education Center – the museum-like section of the Memorial, but I found my way in and stopped in front of a plaque in the first niche that read:

This Memorial honors the women
who have served
in and with the US Armed Forces
from the time of the American Revolution
to the present.

Although women did not officially serve in the military
until the 20th century,
many women served with the military
in earlier times of crisis.

The Education Center within this Memorial
tells the stories of these forerunners
and then focuses on women
of the 20th century
who have served both in and with the military
in ever-expanding roles.

A series of niches with static displays arranged in rough chronological order punctuated the right-hand (exterior) wall of the sterile, modern, semicircular hallway. Pre-20th century displays seemed to focus on individual women, 20th and 21st century displays on small groups. Two video screens offered film clips for visitors who didn’t mind sitting on backless wooden benches with their backs completely exposed to passers-by: none of the women veterans I know who have PTSD would be able to sit on those benches long enough to see the opening credits. Pre-20th century displays told the stories of an individual woman veteran; there was little context or explanation of how that woman’s story was chosen and in what way her story was representative of women’s military service in that era. Nor did I see anything that connected the niches, either thematically or in a narrative arc, except that each featured…women. A guest book in the last niche was surrounded by memorial wreaths set about haphazardly; not until I left did I realize that they had probably been temporarily removed from the Hall of Valor, opposite, where a ceremony was just letting out. Not wanting to disturb the participants, I didn’t even peek into that space.

On the left-hand (interior) wall there were a few more exhibits about individual women: a Navy pilot killed in training; a woman who served in a Navy hospital in during the conflict in Korea, who kept detailed diaries of her experiences. An opening led into a hallway with rest rooms and a conference room that appeared to contain an irritated male Navy captain in service dress blues cleaning up from or setting out presentation materials. Another opening, close to the entrance, contained the “heart” of the memorial: computers where servicewomen or their family members can register, or look up women who are already registered. This hall was staffed with a couple of lovely older ladies, one with a heavy German accent (perhaps a war bride?) who pressed me to register. Two quilts hung there as well: one made on USNS Comfort, and another commemorating women killed in OEF/OIF. One of the docents reverently pointed out retired Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, president of the Memorial Foundation and the driving force behind construction of the Memorial, who was deep in conversation with two other women about her age. Even in civilian clothes, she was unmistakably still a senior officer.

The final section of wall on the interior side of the Education Center exhibit space was taken up by a photo exhibit with pictures of contemporary women in uniform. Little placards offered a brief description of each woman’s service and a quote from her. I didn’t have much time to spend there, and got no feel for how the photos were chosen or arranged – they seemed random.

My final stop was the dark little gift shop. The large shelf in the center was crammed with sweatshirts, t-shirts, and cheap knickknacks that could be found in any DC gift shop: few, if any, of them had anything to do with the Memorial. The bookshelves were stocked with a few hundred volumes about women in the American armed forces, and a few memoirs and biographies. Inexplicably, not one of the recent books by women veterans of OEF/OIF – most of which are currently in print – was for sale there. And I didn’t see a single book about the Memorial itself.

So I came away disheartened and disappointed. The story told about women in military service at the Memorial seems deliberately hidden from public view; the story reads (to me, and I was looking for story) as disjointed, out of context, and almost incoherent. The relationship of the Memorial’s architecture to women’s service is not explained; little context is offered for the exhibits; and there is almost no sense of the historical and ongoing debate about women’s service. Women seem to have been dropped into “ever expanding roles” in the armed forces: there’s no tribute to what women have had to do to gain acceptance and access to those roles, and to prove our worthiness to serve. The gift shop isn’t even carrying the books that would be the most interesting to many visitors – contemporary memoirs and fiction by women who served in OEF/OIF, books whose sales would benefit real, live women veterans.

But there’s more to the story of the Memorial. There are reasons for some of the things that left me unsatisfied when I visited. I’ve found some of the answers already, and I hope to visit again, learn more, and post what I find out. In the meantime, I’m filling out the registration brochure and writing a check for my donation. I may be underwhelmed about the way that the Memorial tells the story of American women’s military service, but I couldn’t agree more with the slogan on the brochure:

Every Servicewoman’s Story Is Important!

If you’re a woman veteran and you haven’t registered with the Memorial, please consider doing so. Donations are voluntary.

Posted in History | Tagged , | 3 Comments

“A Remarkable, Vigilant Soldier on Her Post”


Statue of Deborah Sampson Gannett by sculptor Lu Stubbs. Sharon Public Library, Sharon, MA.

In 1782, Deborah Sampson disguised herself in men’s clothing to enlist in the Continental Army. She was wounded in combat later that year. After her discovery and discharge from the Army in 1783, she petitioned for and received a Congressional pension. She wasn’t the first American woman to do any of these things.[1] But she was the first American woman to tell the story of her military service, both in writing and in public lectures. A revival of interest in her story late in the 20th century led to several books about her adventures – not all of them historically accurate. But what interests me most about her story is the way that aspects of it continue to play out in the lives and stories of women veterans in America today.


Portrait of Deborah Sampson by Joseph Stone, 1797.

Some women may join the armed forces to prove that they’re tough, but no woman has ever enlisted to prove her manhood. Sampson was no exception. She claimed that she’d enlisted from patriotism, a desire to travel, and a determination “to burst the bands, which…held her sex in awe”[2] (she was dissatisfied with the limits Colonial society imposed on women’s activity). All of those things may be true, but her reasons for enlisting were probably more complex. Historian Alfred F. Young[3] suggests several other influences that may have had some bearing on her decision. Born around 1760, she came of age in Massachusetts early in the American Revolution – a time and place where defiance of authority was esteemed. She was rebellious, having left the established Congregational church for the Baptist faith. A voracious reader, she may have been familiar with and admired Britishwoman Hannah Snell’s popular memoir The Female Soldier. She was not beautiful, and could not bring a prospective husband a dowry – if she’d even been able to find a marriage prospect when so many men were off fighting. She’d wanted to travel but couldn’t do so successfully as a single woman. She was almost certainly low on cash.

It took her two tries to join the Continental Army. In March or April of 1782, she dressed in her brother’s clothing and enlisted under the name “Timothy Thayer” in Middleborough, Massachusetts, where she had been living and working. Having been raised first by foster parents and then serving an indenture until her 18th birthday, she was not wealthy; she may have just planned to collect the enlistment bonus to supplement her income as an itinerant weaver and schoolmistress.  She spent some of the money quickly, drinking in the local tavern with other enlistees that night and buying new clothes for herself and a gift of gloves for a friend. But she was known in the town and her fraudulent enlistment was exposed. She was stricken from the muster roll, and even excommunicated from the Baptist church where she had been a member. Probably because she was afraid of civil as well as religious persecution for her attempt to impersonate a man – which was not only considered a sin in that era, but also a crime – she left Middleborough for Bellingham, where she was not known. On May 20, 1782, she succeeded in enlisting in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment as “Robert Shurtliff” – her brother’s first and middle names.

Sampson had to be a better-than-average soldier simply to maintain her disguise as an ordinary private. Being a “spit and polish” soldier at frequent inspections was a good way to avoid calling attention to herself. She didn’t try to be one of the boys; she avoided horseplay and heavy drinking, among other military bonding rituals. One of her senior officers was quoted in a 1794 newspaper article as saying that she “always gained the admiration and applause of her officers…she displayed herself with activity, alertness, chastity and valour…was never found in liquor, and always kept company with the most upright and temperate soldiers.”[4] She qualified and was chosen for service in a light infantry company – an elite, highly mobile unit whose missions included scouting, intelligence gathering, and skirmish. It was considered to be the hardest duty in the Continental Army, with a high probability of being wounded or killed. Light infantrymen stayed busy, which left Sampson’s fellow soldiers little time to speculate on why “Robert Shurtliff” had no beard – and never peed in public. Light infantry duty also allowed Sampson to avoid long stays in garrison where close living conditions would have increased the chances of her sex being discovered. She took advantage of men’s expectations of women and their abilities – and of the unsavory, undisciplined habits of “average” soldiers – to hide in plain sight and even to excel in her duties. Young says, “Women serving openly in modern armies under the compulsion to prove themselves know what it means to avoid identifying with dissenters who rock the boat.” Having been on active duty in the Navy during the Tailhook scandal, and having seen what happened to Paula Coughlin, I can personally attest to the truth of that. Sometimes keeping your head down is the best survival strategy available.

The real story of Sampson’s combat wounds is lost to history. Her Congressional pension application, which would have contained a detailed description of the wounds, has been lost. Young has found sufficient evidence to believe that she actively engaged in combat at least twice; that she sustained wounds, probably in her upper body, in battle; that she treated them herself (not only to maintain her disguise, but because it was safer than entrusting her life to the military physicians of the day); and that she suffered some disability as a result. Whatever documentation she provided of the wounds was sufficient evidence for Congress to grant her pension application soon after it was received. And her honorable discharge on October 25, 1783 is well documented. On assignment to Philadelphia, she contracted a high fever (possibly from measles) and a military surgeon discovered that she was a woman. Exposure, she said later, was her worst fear: the penalties could be harsh. In 1777 her commander, General John Paterson, had been the colonel of a regiment in which a woman named Ann (“Nancy”) Bailey had been fined and jailed for impersonating a male soldier. But the outcome was happier for Sampson. Calvin Munn, who had been her drill sergeant, recalled that “she was…protected by the officers who she served under, discharged, and sent home to her friends.”[5] She may have been granted clemency and an honorable discharge because she had always excelled in her duties and had proven herself in combat.

After her discharge, Sampson returned to the life of a rural Massachusetts woman. She married Benjamin Gannett Junior, a farmer from a prominent local family in the town of Sharon, gave birth to three children, and adopted a fourth. Almost a decade later, she decided to tell her story. The family may have needed the money that a pension and publication would bring in; Benjamin Gannett failed to prosper as a farmer. In part, she simply wanted to receive what she believed was due to any disabled soldier of the Continental Army. The tone of her pension letters suggests that she was frustrated, perhaps even angry, at the difficulties a woman faced in telling her story and getting the recognition due her for her service.

In 1792 Sampson[6] met an idealistic, educated, and patriotic young man with whom she would work for the next thirty years to tell her story to the public. Ambitious but not an experienced (or particularly good) writer, Herman Mann had just started a career as the editor of the newspaper in Dedham. He spent almost five years on Sampson’s biography, published in 1797 as The Female Review.

femalereviewherm00mannrich_0011The book is full of errors. Some may have been accidental; Mann admitted that part had been written hastily, before he’d been able to complete the research to his satisfaction. Some are errors of omission: Sampson didn’t tell Mann about her early, fraudulent enlistment and her excommunication from the Baptist church, probably in order to shape her story in the least unflattering light. And some of the incidents described in the book are pure fiction. Many seem to have been almost plagiarized from the earlier memoir of British soldier Hannah Snell. Others appear to have been invented for sensational effect, including her presence at the Battle of Yorktown (which occurred prior to her enlistment), tales of derring-do among the Indians, and insinuations about her sex life that hinted about romances with other women. Embellishment of a memoir didn’t have the same stigma in the 18th century that it has today, and it would have been difficult to disprove many of the “facts” in the book back then. But Sampson’s own drill sergeant dismissed much of the book as “a novel not one fourth of which is fact” while he praised Sampson herself: “she displayed much alertness, chastity and valour” and “was a remarkable, vigilant soldier on her post.”[7] James Adams Vinton, who published a reprint of The Female Review in 1866, included extensive, disparaging comments about factual errors in the text. Contemporary sources suggest that Sampson had not approved part of the book and was not entirely pleased with it. In the 1820s, she refused to approve publication of a second edition until after her death.

One thing is certain: the story that Sampson told about her service has only come down to us filtered and embellished by Herman Mann. In the late eighteenth century women who wrote for publication were considered disreputable, and having Mann write and publish her memoir may have been the only way that Sampson could have her story told without facing social ostracism. Mann may also have appropriated her story to further his own career and reputation, or to publish a story easily shaped to reflect his own patriotic ideals and view of the American Revolution (but not to advance any subversion of established gender roles). At the very least, he was privileged by gender and superior education to take whatever liberties or to impose whatever meaning he wanted on the story with a nearly complete disregard for both the truth and Sampson’s intent in taking her story public. In short, The Female Review is an early American example of “mansplaining” a female veteran’s service.

new doc 1_7At the turn of the century, Sampson decided to take her story on the lecture circuit. She delivered an “address” followed by a performance of the manual of arms while wearing a soldier’s uniform. She had remained friends with Mann and his family, and he collaborated with her on her speech. Although Mann is once again the author of her address, it’s as close as we can come to hearing her voice today. She choose to use the words of that address to tell her story in public. We know that she memorized the address and delivered it at least twenty times in a dozen cities. I believe that something more of her personality and intent comes through in the address. I believe that it’s a more honest story than The Female Review, and that its value lie less in what Sampson said about the facts of her life than in how she chose to speak to the American public about her decision to enlist and about the value of her service.

The bulk of the address is an apology for Sampson’s transgression of disguising herself as a man – “a foible, an error and presumption”[8] – but it’s a defensive apology. She says that her story

“…ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society, from the acknowledgement of my own sex, and from the endearing friendship of the other. But this, I venture to pronounce, would be saying too much: For as I should thus not respect myself, should be entitled to none from others.”

She was proud of her service, however shocking it may have been to polite society. I personally suspect that she also took perverse pleasure in the transgression:

“And yet I must frankly confess,” she says, “I recollect it with a kind of satisfaction, which no one can better conceive and enjoy than him, who, recollecting the good intentions of a bad deed, lives to see and to correct any indecorum of his life.”

She also claims agency for herself. It’s hard to miss the parallel she draws between what she sought in her own rebellion and what the colonists sought in the American rebellion:

“I burst the tyrant bonds, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural priviledge….Thus I became an actor in that important drama, with an inflexible resolution to persevere through the last scene; when we might be permitted and acknowledged to enjoy what we had so nobly declared we would possess, or lose with our lives: FREEDOM and INDEPENDENCE!”

She goes on to allude briefly and in vague images to four wartime episodes that her audience would have recognized: the Westchester skirmishes, the Battle of Yorktown, Schuyler’s expedition into northern New York, and her discovery in Philadelphia. She provides no personal details of her experience (she could not have been involved in two of the four episodes: she hadn’t yet enlisted when the Battle of Saratoga in took place in 1777 or when the Battle of Yorktown was fought in 1781). In declining to provide personal details, she might have able to mislead her audience into thinking that she had enlisted early in the war. But she also managed to avoid overt lies, for the most part. There is only one sentence that could be taken as an absolute lie: in describing the Battle of Yorktown, she says that “Three successive weeks, after a long and rapid march, found me amidst this storm.”

Then she slyly equates her own motives for enlisting with the “noble” motives that are typically attributed only to men, in a poem composed by Mann:

“And dost thou ask what fair hand inspired
A Nymph to be with martial glory fired?
Or, what from art, or yet from Nature’s laws,
Has join’d a Female to her country’s cause?
Then ask – why Cincinnatus left his farm?
Why science did old PLATO’s bosom warm?
Why HECTOR in the Trojan war should dare?
Or why should HOMER trace his actions there?
Why NEWTON in philosophy has shown?
Or CHARLES, for solitude, has left his throne?
Why LOCKE in metaphysics should delight –
Precisian sage, to set false reason right?
Perhaps the same propensity you use,
Has prompted her a martial course to choose.”
Women are capable of the same noble and heroic thoughts and deeds as the heroes of Western classicism? Women have the same impulse as men to fight for their country? What absolutely radical assertions – assertions that women in the American armed forces still have to make every time a question comes up about their “appropriate” roles in military service.

If she had been a man, Sampson continues, her story would be understood differently.

“I am indeed willing to acknowledge what I have done, an error and presumption. I will call it an error and presumption, because I swerved from the accustomed flowry paths of female delicacy, to walk upon the heroic precipice of feminine perdition! – I indeed left my morning pillow of roses, to prepare a couch of brambles for the night….Had all this been achieved by the rougher hand, more properly assigned to wield the sword in duty and danger in a defensive war…these thorns might have been converted into wreaths of immortal glory and fame.”

In the final paragraphs of her address, Sampson alludes to some of the challenges she faced in reintegrating into peacetime society in a traditional woman’s role. Not only was her service not recognized or valued; she seems to have been the object of gossip and scorn, perhaps even shamed by questions about her sexual virtue because she had served alongside men in a role traditionally reserved for men. She apologizes repeatedly for “whatever I may be thought to have been unnatural, unwise and indelicate.” Young believes that she may have adopted an apologetic tone in her address and inferred that women and men belonged in separate spheres to try to regain social acceptance.

The final words of Deborah Sampson Gannett’s public address are a reference to a woman’s expected role of child rearing, usually read as a return to convention to satisfy public expectation and to solicit social approval. “Let us rear an offspring in every respect worthy to fill the most illustrious stations of their predecessors,” she says.

And so they did. America’s women veterans have filled “the most illustrious stations of their predecessors” – predecessors like Deborah Sampson Gannett; like Margaret Corbin, severely wounded in action and taken prisoner by the enemy in 1776; like Sally St. Clare, a woman of color who became the first recorded American woman killed in action at the Battle of Savannah on December 29, 1778;[9] and like the camp followers, the civilian volunteers, and the hundreds or even thousands of other women who served anonymously in the armed forces before women were permitted to enlist officially in the twentieth century. They continue to do so today.

From the moment of enlistment to separation from the service or even death, the experiences of women veterans are not the same as those of men who serve their country. Even when they perform the same jobs, achieve the same ranks, and fight in the same battles, the lived experiences of women veterans differ from those of the men they fight beside. So when women veterans tell their stories openly and honestly, those stories aren’t the same as the stories told by fighting men. Because there exists no single definitive story of military service or of war, the stories of women veterans must be heard if American society is to understand correctly the value and the cost of military service – and of war. To my sisters in arms: our stories matter.

On this blog, I hope to look at the stories that women veterans are telling – to make a space to consider our lived experiences, our stories and how we tell them, and the meaning that we might derive from them. If you are a woman veteran, tell your stories, in whatever way works best for you. Insist, as Deborah Sampson insisted, on speaking up and on being heard. You’ll find some resources on this web site to get you started.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll return.

new doc 3_1 Notes

[1] The women of Prudence Wright’s Guard, most of whom remain unknown and unrecognized, may have been the first who donned men’s clothing and took up arms in defense of the new nation. You can read their story here. On November 16, 1776, during the Battle of Fort Washington (New York), camp follower Margaret Corbin became the first recorded woman wounded in action. She took up her husband’s place at his cannon after Hessian soldiers shot and killed him. Her arm was nearly severed by three bullets and grape shot, and she was taken prisoner when British and Hessian troops overran her position. She became the first woman to be awarded a military pension by Congress on July 6, 1779. Other women received pensions for their service from their state or local governments; nurses, cooks, and laundresses who served as civilians with the Continental Army were also eligible for pensions.

[2] Deborah Sampson, “An Addrss [sic], Delivered with Applause, at the Federal-Street Theatre, Boston, Four Successive Nights of the Different Plays, Beginning March 22, 1802; and After, at Other Principal Towns, a Number of Nights Successively at Each Place.” Dedham: Printed and sold by H. Mann, for Mrs. Gannett, at the Minerva Office, 1802. Reprinted in The Magazine of History, Extra Number – No. 124, 1926.

[3] Young has done a masterful job of separating out the known facts, probable facts, and falsehoods about Sampson’s life, and of putting them into a rich historical context. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier is as enjoyable as a detective novel. I’ve relied heavily on the book for this post.

[4] Young believes that General John Paterson, under whom Sampson served as an orderly, provided these statements to a writer at the New York Gazette. They appeared in an article that ran in the January 10, 1784 edition of the newspaper.

[5] Calvin Munn, letter to the editor in the June 30, 1827 issue of the New York Evening Post.

[6] Sampson’s maiden name is used throughout this post to maintain continuity.

[7] Munn, New York Evening Post.

[8] The remainder of the quotes in this post are from Sampson, “An Addrss,” cited above.

[9] There are fewer stories of women veterans of color in the literature than those of their white counterparts: their stories were even less likely to be valued in America, and their race made it doubly risky to tell their stories.

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