Scandal hits home for female veterans who used to think 'someday this will change'
By RITA PRICE | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 11, 2017
At 94, World War II veteran Ruby Gilliam would like to be able to say she outlived the problem. But she knows that the fight against discrimination and harassment are far from over for America's military women.
"I used to think, 'Someday, this will change,''' Gilliam said. "There we were, serving our country. It was all very disturbing. It still is."
A panel of female veterans — some more than a half-century younger than Gilliam — joined her Friday to celebrate Women's History Month and to share their stories of struggle and accomplishment, of hope and honor.
Gilliam was a young widow who had lost her husband to the war when she shocked her family and joined the military herself. She still considers the moment she donned her WAVES uniform the proudest of her life, more so, she said to laughter, than giving birth.
That certainty made the slurs hurt and bewilder all the more. With few avenues for complaint, she and others tried to respond with determination.
"You raised your head a little higher, you clicked your heels a little harder and you walked on," Gilliam told an audience at the Ohio History Center. "Today, I'm hoping, it is different."
Heads nodded in response. Although women were disheartened to learn this month of yet another another scandal, this one involving reports that Marines had been sharing nude photographs of women Marines, veterans and others on a secret Facebook page, they see progress in the investigative process.
"Twenty years ago, it was, 'What did you do?''' Senior Master Sgt. Tamara Gonzales of the Ohio Air National Guard said during an interview after the panel event.
Gonzales, who also served in the U.S. Army Reserve, said she thinks responses have improved since she reported being sexually assaulted two decades ago. Although her attacker was investigated and left the military, the process was rocky.
"We still have those issues, and we still have to address them," said Gonzales, now with the 121st Air Refueling Wing in Columbus. "Early deterrence is the best way."
Efforts that encourage bystander intervention also have been effective, Gonzales said. A focus on reducing alcohol consumption is important, too, she said. "... I deal with these things on a regular basis."
As a mother, with both a son and a daughter in the military, she worries. "In a deployed environment, women are, what? 20 to 1? We become a trophy," she said.
While most all of the women spoke of hurdles, none had regrets about their service or careers in the military. Women today make up about 15 percent of the America's military, and nearly 68,000 female veterans of all eras live in Ohio.
Elva Pounders, of Akron, a Vietnam era veteran, was among the first groups of women to serve in the Marines in 1960. She made it a career and retired in 1990.
Her father, she said, had been against her service. Then he saw her in her uniform, beaming. "It was only the second time I ever saw my dad cry," said Pounders, 76.
Gilliam fought back tears a handful of times as she spoke. While stationed in Washington, D.C., she ran computers for the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and recorded the cards for injured or killed service members. She also lost a nephew, and a brother was wounded.
But, she told the audience, "There's a happy ending to this story."
She met another young man, a Marine. They married and had children and grandchildren. "Life went on," said Gilliam, who lives in Minerva in Carroll County.
It was her experience in the WAVES, though, that shaped her, she said.
"It gave me my future."
©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) standing in formation at NAS Patuxent River, Md., outside the hangars in the 1940s. By the time recruiting ended in 1945, the WAVES boasted a force of 86,000 enlisted and more than 8,000 female officers.
DONNA M CIPOLLONI/PERSONAL COLLECTION OF ALICE VIRGINIA BENZIE VIA U.S. NAVY