June 15, 2019 — Women have always played a critical role in the development of freedom and democracy in America. While women’s contributions have generally been regarded as domestic in nature, this belief stands in stark contrast to the facts, which show that women have been involved in fighting and dying for America since its inception.
In his book detailing the surreptitious nature of resistance to British rule, “Washington’s Spies,” Alexander Ross shares the powerful story of America’s first woman spy, Anna Smith Strong. Ross believes that Strong was at the heart of the spy ring that Gen. George Washington created to improve his almost non-existent intelligence on the British military’s troop movement and supply routes.
Strong was the wife of Selah Strong, a delegate to the first three Provincial Congresses in New York, where he also served as a captain in the militia. Selah was imprisoned under suspicion of being a spy and Ross believes that his imprisonment led to his wife becoming Washington’s “Agent 355.” Ross is convinced that Anna Strong was, indeed, America’s first female spy.
The bravery and intelligence that Strong exhibited gathering information and delivering it to surrogates on Washington’s staff is at the center of the fictionalized Netflix series based on Ross’s book, entitled “Turn.” The popular historical series portrays a woman of incredible courage and intelligence who, while constrained by contemporary values, manages to gather critical information under the most trying of circumstances. Strong clearly played a pivotal role in the initial securing of American independence.
The story of Anna Strong is just one example of the underappreciated aspect of the contributions made by women to the military. That ongoing lack of recognition is one of the main reasons that Gov. Kate Brown proclaimed an observance of the first Oregon Women’s Veteran’s Day on June 12.
“Throughout our nation’s history, women have served honorably and courageously both on and off the battlefield,” Brown stated. “Today, women comprise more than 16 percent of the country’s military force, with more than 25,000 women veterans currently residing in the state of Oregon and the number of women veterans continues to increase — as does Oregon’s commitment to promoting awareness of their contributions to our nation’s military history and improved access to their earned benefits.”
Oregon’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs (ODVA) released a statement in conjunction with Brown’s proclamation that reaffirmed the important roles women have played in the military.
“As a proud veteran of the U.S. Army, this historic proclamation is something that is obviously very personal for me,” said ODVA Director Kelly Fitzpatrick. “I am proud that here at ODVA, women veterans are represented at every level of our agency, including the very top. We are proud of all women veterans in the state of Oregon. You are a vital part of the Oregon veteran community, and we will continue to work to anticipate your needs and help you thrive in our state. Thank you for your service to our country.”
Florence has a large veteran’s community, and many of these former military members are women. The designation of a specific day to recognize the contributions made by women has resonated throughout the Florence veteran’s community.
On Wednesday, a number of these female veterans met at 1285 Restobar in Historic Old Town Florence to celebrate the proclamation and the service of fellow women vets.
Members of the Coastal Women’s Veteran’s Group (CWVG) shared their thoughts and experiences from the time they spent serving in the military and the impact that service had on their lives. There are women from all branches of the military represented in the CWVG and, while they all wanted to serve, some found their avenues of service limited.
Sharon Armstrong is one of the leaders of CWVG and she spent the majority of her career as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard.
“At that time, fall of 1972, the Coast Guard was the only service accepting women with no prior military service. It had stripped all its reserve units of male admin staff and activated them for the Vietnam War. Now they figured they’d fill behind with women who had office skills. … Since the Coast Guard had no time to send women recruits to ‘A’ schools or even conduct (on the job training) all we had to do was demonstrate a higher level of typing, accounting, filing, writing, and the like,” Armstrong said. “I had a federal government job, two years of college and a few years of federal contracting experience under my belt, and I was enlisted as a Petty Officer First Class. My spouse was astounded as he had put in 4 years hard work to muster out as an E-5! Three years later I was offered a Direct Commission. Thirty-one years later I retired as an O-6 Captain.”
Members of CWVG have served in Korea, Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East. Nancy Sobottka is one of the group’s senior members and her time of service coincided with a struggle of a different kind.
“I was in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from 1958-1960. This was a vastly different time from today’s women in the service. I enlisted right out of high school as I felt very patriotic as well as wanting to travel and see the world. Well, that didn’t work too well. My entire enlistment was spent at Ft. McClellan, Ala., which was the headquarters of the WAC in those days,” Sobottka said. “These were the days before integration in the South. The post was integrated, but walk out the gates, and it was not. I remember one time at the service club on post when a black young man was teaching me to play the guitar. One of my friends came over and whispered to me that I better call a halt to that as several of the white men were getting upset and there might be problems. As a Wisconsinite from a small town, this was a sad experience.”
The stories shared by the ladies in the CWVG range from their participation in important historical events to more personal memories.
Terri Pennington was not only involved in one of the most significant events in military history, but she also found her husband-to-be during her service.
“My active duty started in April 1967 as a Second Lt. at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. I learned how to help set up a field hospital, shoot a gun, how to march, salute and the Army way of doing things. An unexpected benefit was meeting my husband Charlie, who was a ‘dust off’ helicopter pilot getting some medical training there, too, before being transferred to Vietnam.”
Pennington and her husband were later transferred to Korea, where the couple were involved with the repatriation of Americans that made news worldwide.
“On his first night check ride along the DMZ (demilitarized zone) I went along. As I looked out the window, I thought I was seeing 4th of July fireworks. We were being shot at. That was one of many interesting adventuresome yet to come.”
Another special memory that happened there was the release of the Pueblo crew in December 1968 to the hospital where she worked.
“These men were so happy to be free and back in our care,” Pennington said. “Charlie later flew up into North Korea to pick up the remains of one of the crew that didn’t survive the captivity.”
Cynthia J. Wright is a leader in the local veteran’s community and one of the more vocal of the members of the CWVG. Her service included a stint in an unusual capacity.
“I wanted to be a linguist and joined hoping to go into that field as a Cryptologic Technician, interpretive branch. But at the time I joined, that field was closed to women. So, I went into Aviation and became a Parachute Rigger, which was fun. I got to do a free-fall jump from an airplane with a chute I packed myself as part of my training. I also got to go up with the Navy Parachuting Team once and watch them go out of the back of an airplane in formation, taking photos the whole time from my strapped in position. I made lot of great lifetime friends in the service and have always been proud that I served, although my service was all during peace time.”
Many of the women were positive about their time serving, but there were a few former servicewomen that were uncomfortable or simply unwilling to share their experience with the public, as they include violence directed against them or who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These brave former soldiers did not want to publicly revisit the pain they still felt.
Ultimately, however, all of the women were proud to have served and look forward to the camaraderie of the CWVG.
The attendees said they were glad of the recognition the Brown’s proclamation brings and feel it is well deserved and perhaps overdue.
“I am really pleased that Oregon has joined three other states in officially designating June 12 as Women’s Veterans Day,” Wright said. “I believe the contributions of women in the military have not received the appreciation and recognition they deserve. So, it’s nice that a day has been designated for that purpose.”
According to the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, June 12 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which recognizes contributions made by women in the military and enables them to serve as regular members of the U.S. Armed Forces and Reserve.
With the proclamation from Brown, Oregon becomes the fourth state in the union to officially recognize the sacrifice and service of military women.