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Pa. woman recalls breaking National Guard gender barrier

By READING EAGLE, PA. Published: September 2, 2013

READING, Pa. — Cyndy Witman pulled a yellowing newspaper clipping from a manila envelope and looked at the young woman in the accompanying photograph.

"That's me," she said, pointing to the photograph. "I was the first woman to join the Pennsylvania National Guard unit in Reading."

The headline on the story, which ran in the Reading Eagle on Nov. 4, 1973, pretty much said it all.

"Guard Liberated," it read.

Cynthia L. Witman of Robesonia, then 26, a single mother of three children, broke the gender barrier on Nov. 3, 1973, when she was sworn into the Headquarters Detachment, 337th Maintenance Battalion, in a ceremony at the armory on River Road.

Capt. Norman Lathbury, detachment commander, noted that Witman was the first woman to be a member of the unit since its establishment on March 23, 1774 — 199 years earlier.

Witman, now 66, a retired geriatric nurse who still lives in the same house in Robesonia, laments the passage of time.

"I can't believe," she said, "that 40 years have passed."

Reflecting on the historic moment, Witman recalled the early 1970s as a time of change.

In the wake of Vietnam War protests, Congress discontinued the draft and initiated the so-called all volunteer Army.

In response, the National Guard launched the "Try One" program, an attempt to recruit former servicemen and women by promising they'd achieve their former rank within a year.

Witman, a licensed practical nurse, had done a three-year stint in the Women's Army Corps. As a clinical specialist at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, she held the rank of sergeant.

Joining the military was somewhat of a natural for the daughter of a World War II airman.

Robert L. Ward Sr. of Limerick, Montgomery County, had regaled his daughter with his exploits aboard a B-17 bomber "flying over the hump," military lingo for the Himalaya Mountains, in the China-Burma-India Theater.

"I always felt strongly about serving my country," Witman said.

Serving in the WACs, a regular Army unit made up of women, was one thing. Breaking the gender barrier of an all-male institution, Witman would find, was quite another.

Older soldiers in particular resented seeing a woman wearing the same uniform.

"There was harassment, but you had to take it," she said. "In those days, you couldn't do much about it."

At the same time, Witman says, many men in the unit were very protective of her.

Consistent with a policy that prevented women serving in combat units, Witman was assigned personnel duties.

She chuckles at regulations that now seem arcane.

"Even though we wore combat boots, we had to carry our dress purse at all times," she recalled.

Witman served her initial year and re-enlisted for a second year in the Reading unit. The demands of raising three children on her own, however, prevented her from signing on for a third year.

Still, she believes she paved the way for other women who chose to serve in the National Guard. And she holds an enduring fondness for the time she spent in uniform.

"It's one of the things I'm glad that I did," she said. "When I get together with other women who served, it's like a sisterhood."

rdevlin@readingeagle.com.

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