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Military Women Continue to Break Down Barriers

Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy, 03.19.2009

ARLINGTON, Va. --03.19.2009

While there are fewer barriers that need to be overcome by women, each woman serving in the military has broken barriers of her own, said Army Maj. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and former helicopter pilot with the Illinois Army National Guard.

"Those of us females who have been in the military for a few years have our own stories of being the first this or the first that," said Duckworth, who was recently nominated by President Barack Obama to the post of assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs for the Department of Veteran Affairs. "In some ways we each had to break through in our own way proving we were just as good as the men."

Duckworth was the keynote speaker at the National Guard Bureau's women's history month program this week, "Women Taking the Lead," which highlighted the accomplishments of women in the military. It was hosted by Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

The program also highlighted the accomplishments of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, a U.S. Army unit composed largely of African-American women who were given the task of sorting and delivering mail to the about seven million American troops stationed in Europe during World War II.

While it may have been a daunting task, there were also perks of the job, including the ability to see parts of Europe and interact with those from other areas, said Alice Dixon, a veteran of the unit, who was present at the event.

And, said Duckworth, it is because of women such as Dixon who paved the way for her to be successful in her military career.

"I recognize that I am here today, because I stand on the shoulders of the women before me who broke through," said Duckworth. "It's taken us a long time, but more and more women are taking up leadership positions that would not have been possible 20 years ago."

But, it wasn't only the women who went before her that helped her along her career.

"I also want to make sure and emphasize that my greatest supporters in my career were men," said Duckworth.

"I was often the only female in an [otherwise] all-male unit. It was the male officers above me, who reached out and guided me. It was the male NCOs who dragged me behind the hanger and smacked me on the side the head and said, 'What do you think you're doing L-T?'"

The program noted that women have broken down barriers in the military as far back as 1775 and the founding of the U.S armed forces.

"During the American Revolution it was not uncommon for wives, mothers and daughters to follow their male loved ones into battle," said McKinley, who added that it wasn't until the Spanish-American War and the founding of the Army Nurse Corps that women were formally a part of the military. "The significant role of nurses and women serving in other roles during World War I firmly established the importance of women to the armed forces."

And much has changed since then. "How far has our nation come? [Today] women serve at every level of the military and in almost every career field," said McKinley.

"Frankly, it's really time to stop being surprised that America's daughters are fully capable of doing their jobs and fighting for freedom," Duckworth added.

Duckworth is one of many military women who have served overseas. Deployed to Iraq where she flew combat missions in a UH-60 Blackhawk, she said that it really came down to one thing-supporting the mission.

"In that cockpit, it didn't matter if I was male or female, it only mattered that I supported the mission," said Duckworth. "In that cockpit it didn't matter if I was from Illinois and the pilot in command was from Missouri. Or if he was a first Gulf War veteran and had been in 20 years and I had only been in 15. It was about the mission."

And on Nov. 12, 2004, while supporting the mission, Duckworth and her Blackhawk crew were brought down by enemy fire.

"That day in my aircraft, bleeding, knowing that I was dying, when people came to rescue me at no time did I check [whether] they were male or female before allowing them to carry me out," she said.

But that day, which resulted in her losing the bottom portion of both legs, also brought other points to light.

"The day that I was shot down, I started out as the highest ranking person of my crew. The lowest ranking person in that aircraft was Spc. Kurt Hanneman," she said, adding that many may say that as the lowest ranking he was the least important on the aircraft.

"He wasn't the crew chief, he wasn't in charge of that aircraft [and] he wasn't the pilot in command. At the end of that day, Kurt Hanneman was the most important person in our crew, she said. "At the end of that day after we had been shot down and Kurt had taken AK-47 rounds into his back, it was Kurt who grabbed his weapon and maintained rear security to make sure the rescue could happen. Bleeding, going into shock [and] scared out of his mind he was not going to quit his post," she said.

And there were others in her unit that were equally as dedicated, to include another female pilot, who stayed by Duckworth's side.

"The day I was shot down she volunteered to accompany me to Landstuhl [Regional Medical Center]," said Duckworth. "And you have to understand what it's like to one minute be flying missions and to know that a buddy has been hit and may be dying, and then to volunteer to accompany that person. And, she went to Landstuhl solely to sit next to my bed in case I woke up so that I would see a friendly face."

"She ... continued to fly combat missions during the day, studied for the bar exam at night, came home, and three weeks [later] ... passed the bar exam," said Duckworth. "That's a warrior woman."

And though many may say that the day Duckworth was shot down was tragic, for her it brought out one point.

"That day taught me more than anything else that it doesn't matter who you are or what you are; all that matters is that you don't let your buddies down and that you stick with the mission and you never quit - you never give up."

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