Vietnam Era veteran Colleen Ross of Columbia Falls well remembers the response she got at an employment office when she asked about job opportunities for veterans.
“Lady, these jobs are for veterans,” the office worker insisted, not understanding that Ross herself was a veteran.
Joan Ortmann, a parachute rigger in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, has been a card-carrying member of the American Legion for 53 years. The 85-year-old veteran, of Columbia Falls, was the first woman commander of the post in Lisbon, Iowa. Yet time and time again her male counterparts assumed she was part of the Legion’s auxiliary unit for women.
“The auxiliary meets just down the hall,” one man advised her.
It’s been a proverbial uphill battle for women in the military since the beginning. Women have served their country throughout the history of the United States, starting with those who disguised themselves as male soldiers during the American Revolution and Civil War because only men could enlist.
Even though women made significant contributions in the fields of health care and medicine during the Civil War, “military leadership still was not ready to accept them as an integral part of the military medical service,” a Department of Veterans Affairs report on America’s women veterans notes about those earliest women veterans. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Army returned to using only men for patient care and sent the women home.
Undaunted by a male-dominated culture, women persevered in their military service. More than 10,000 women served during World War I, and by World War II the number of American women serving had grown to 400,000.
It wasn’t until the passage of the Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 that women became a permanent part of the U.S. military. Even so, women continued to be restricted to 2 percent of the military population, according to the VA report prepared by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. That restriction was lifted in 1967 during the Vietnam War. In 1973, when conscription ended and an all-volunteer was instituted, the military began recruiting more women because there weren’t enough qualified male volunteers to meet the manpower needs.
The early 1990s were a pivotal time for women in the military.
In 1994 the policy of combat exclusion that prevented women from serving on combat ships in the Navy was lifted, opening the doors for women to be considered for some of the top positions in the Navy, the VA study notes. Four years later U.S. women aviators flew combat aircraft on a combat mission for the first time in history during Operation Desert Fox in Iraq.
“By the end of the 1990s, significant policy changes had been made toward women’s increased integration into the military, but women today are still excluded from direct offensive ground combat occupations and positions, as well as some of the special warfare communities such as Navy SEALS,” the report states.
“The continually changing roles of women in the military, their multiple deployments, and the blurring of combat and non-combat operations suggest that the future outcomes and needs of these women as they become veterans may be quite different from those of their predecessors,” the report concludes.
Cindy Cross of Kalispell, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1996 to 2008 during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, said she always felt accepted as an equal during her time in the military. Her service included a stint as a medic at a military hospital in Kurdistan.
“It was a very positive experience,” Cross said. “As a medic, it was an opportunity to meet a lot of different vets, learning what they did and what they saw.”
Cross is still on the front line of helping veterans as a medical support assistant for the Veterans Administration clinic in Kalispell.
She initially joined the military for three key reasons: to further her education, travel and serve her country.
Angela Faustini of Columbia Falls said she also felt treated as an equal by the men in her unit during her time in the Air Force, a 12-year, 8-month stint during the 1980s and the Gulf War in 1991-92.
“The camaraderie was amazing in the military,” Faustini said. “It was more of we need to be on the same page and working together.”
Kellie Barker, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and Bosnia said being in the military taught her to “be more aware of how, as a woman, I may be projecting myself.
“I feel there’s a double standard at times,” said Barker, of Columbia Falls. “Men can act a certain way, but women ... can be looked on as being an instigator. If a woman is helpful or nice, it can be interpreted as flirting.”
Even though women are “always going to be a minority,” Barker said she liked the equality the military afforded in terms of equal pay.
“It’s black and white on paper; you’re paid by rank,” she said. “That’s what I appreciated the most.”
In the end, whether or not she could do her job was what her commanders needed to know.
“You’re a solider and expected to work together to complete the mission,” Barker added.
Air Force veteran Colleen Ross of Columbia Falls was one of the first females in the women’s squadron when she arrived at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota in 1971. That was a much different era for women in the military, and she knows firsthand the challenges women faced in those years. She’s still helping veterans, too, especially women vets who need help getting the benefits to which they’re entitled.
Currently there are more than 213,000 women in active military service, and another 190,000 in the Reserves and National Guard.
The total population of women veterans is expected to increase at an average rate of about 11,000 women per year for the next 20 years.
“While the VA has greatly increased the services, support and resources for women veterans, there is still more to be done,” the VA report acknowledges, vowing commitment to make sure women veterans receive benefits and services equal to their male counterparts.