CINCINNATI -- American Legion Post 644 is like no other in the Tri-State: It is the only one set up to advocate and serve primarily female veterans.
Founded in 1946, it is one of three in the country that dedicated to the needs of women vets. The number of women in the military has ebbed and flowed through the years, with the conflicts and the wars. And certainly, their roles have morphed as time has passed.
But they all share stories about their service. A group of University of Cincinnati journalism students spent about three months interviewing the veterans to capture their memories.
What follows are edited transcripts of the stories of the vets from Post 644.
Mary McHugh (Sister Marguerite)
- Branch/Rank: Navy, third class petty officer
- Location/Time Serviced: Norfolk, Va., active duty (1944-1946)
- Residence: Reading, Ohio
I was working as a beautician when I decided to join the Navy. My two brothers were in, and the war was on. I thought if I got in that maybe we could get the war over, or at least get the Japanese part of the war over. I left Cincinnati for Hunter College in the Bronx, N.Y, April 6, 1944, where more than 90,000 voluntary service women were trained during World War II. We were there for six weeks and then we went to Norfolk, Va., for basic training.
Basic training was nothing but marching. March, march, march. We had to clean the barracks for about two weeks, and then they began training us to be gunnery instructors for the male naval officers.
At first there were issues with the men respecting us. When they started shooting they thought they knew a lot more than they did.
When a couple of them came back or didn’t come back, I’d say: ‘Well where’s this guy?’ They said, ‘He didn’t make it.'
The Japanese fighter pilots came straight in, they didn’t care at all. That’s when they said they would be willing to be taught from women and we went from there.
After the war ended, I came back to Cincinnati and started working as a beautician again, but eventually became a telephone operator at AT&T. I’d flirted with joining the Sisters of Mount Notre Dame for a while, my aunt was a sister. I finally joined in 1954.
I originally joined the American Legion Post 644 because my cousin Ann McHue was a member. But when Ann died, the commander asked me: ‘Would you be able to be the chaplain of our group?’
So beginning in 1980 I was the chaplain, then I was the second vice, then the first vice, and I was the commander for about nine or 10 years. One by one those ladies were just dying. I’m 91 (she turns 92 in November), so a lot of these people were much younger than I am. I’ve since stepped down as commander and reclaimed my original role as chaplain.
In 2012 I was inducted into Veterans Hall of Fame
It’s been 70 years now, but I think I would do it all again, join the Navy. I was anxious once my two brothers talked about leaving. I guess we were all dumb. We didn’t pick up that mom was hurting that much. But I’ve enjoyed my time in the Navy.
-- Interviewed by Joshua A. Miller
- Rank: Army, 2nd lieutenant
- Location/Time Serviced: Verdun, France, active duty (1964-1966); Army Reserves (12-year commitment filled)
- Residence: Williamstown, Ky.
- Occupation: Retired structural engineer
I guess I had a knack for engineering. My mother told me that when I was little I would beg her for a spoon so I could go out in the backyard and dig holes. I went into a four-year engineering program at Norwich University – the military college of New England – where I graduated as a commissioned officer of the United States Army. I had an obligation of two years of active duty, and a 12-year obligation in the Army reserves.
I got a piece of paper – I think it was signed by Cyrus Vance back in those days – granting me a commission in the U.S. Army because I had fulfilled my requirements.
After four years of college, I didn’t really want to go back home. I had an opportunity to work as a junior civil engineer in California for the division of highways. That’s about as far as I could get away from my parents, so I jumped at that chance. I went out there, with my commission, knowing that sometime I was going to hear from the Army.
I was out there for nine months before I finally heard from the Army. I saw the words “secret” on the order and the word “France.” So I’m thinking to myself, maybe a parachute jump into France? Anyway I went off to officer’s basic and spent about three months there learning how to be an engineering officer.
They told me to report to some dock in New York City. I got on a big ship and sailed to Hanover, Germany, hopped on a train and went down to Verdun, France, and stayed there almost two years.
I was the repair and utilities officer for the post engineer. I walked into Engineering Control Point 883, and was handed an office. I was held accountable for keeping track of supplies in the warehouse and keeping track of orders.
I had no idea what I was doing. I had 35 French people working for me. Thank God I had some good people working for me, or I probably would have ended up in jail.
There are a lot of stories I could tell you about why I didn’t want to stay. But in the end, I saved all of my money and my leave time. I wanted to see Europe. After I was discharged, I spent the next four months traveling around anywhere I could go, and I had a ball. Then I came back home, and I started to pursue a career in real engineering.
-- Interviewed by Kelsey Kennedy
- Branch/Rank: Army, sergeant
- Locations/Time Serviced: Fort McClellan, Ala., and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, active duty (1974); Kaiserslautern, Germany, active duty (1975-1977)
- Residence: Greenhills
- Occupation: Paralegal and business administrator for Givaudan Flavors and Fragrances, Cincinnati
Of all the noble reasons I could have joined the military, my main reason was to get away. I had just broken up with my boyfriend, and I thought joining the Army would be the best way to escape and forget about the guy and the heartbreak.
After basic training, I met my first husband. We married while we were both in the military, and my first son was born while we were stationed in Germany. He had also served during the Vietnam War, and as we discovered later, he had suffered liver damage as a result of the Agent Orange chemical the U.S. military had used to kill vegetation and human lives in North Vietnam.
Two years after we were married he died of liver disease. He passed away while we were stationed in Germany and left me with a one-year-old son. I now felt it was just too much for me to stay beyond my three-year-commitment. So, I thought it best that I finish and get out and come home with my son.
That was the biggest mistake in my life because I regretted it so much afterwards. I wished I had just stayed and continued on because now I realize I could have done it.
The military family is so close-knit. From the moment you get in the service you are instantly part of a big family. Everyone watches out for everyone else. It can be a wonderful environment.
When I came home, the Vietnam War had been a very unpopular war. There was nothing positive about being a veteran at that time. So I went home, packed up my uniform in a box, and stuck it in my grandmother’s attic.
Being a woman veteran today is much different than what it was when I was in. We really never received the combat training that men got, and women, up until very recently, still didn’t get the same combat training that men got.
Now, we have all of these young military women in combat zones from the moment they land in Iraq or Afghanistan because there are no enemy lines like there were in World War II, Vietnam, Korea, or even Desert Storm.
Even if they are classified as support or are on retrieval duty, they are getting maimed and killed. And, for those who come back with traumatic injuries and PTSD, they aren’t getting the benefits and necessary treatment that the men get with their combat status.
Because of this situation, another Post 644 member, Lynn Ashley, and I got together and wrote a Resolution (10-1) ... to give women the same combat training and status as men, especially in terrorist war zones where there are no clear enemy lines. This resolution means a great deal to the members of Post 644, and eventually it will to all American women veterans. We will not give up until it becomes law.
If there is only one other thing I ever accomplish, it will be this resolution.
-- Interviewed by Melanie Titanic-Schefft
- Branch/Rank: Army, E-6 staff sergeant
- Location/Time Serviced: Fort Campbell, Ky., active duty (1985-89); Army Reserve (1989-99); Individual Ready Reserve (1999-2002)
- Residence: Springdale, Ohio
- Occupation: Pharmaceutical sales
I was a flight medic for a while, which was pretty cool. Kind of scary, though. Eight weeks of training, and then all of a sudden you’re put in active duty. Just being a regular medic for a year or two, and then all of a sudden, I’m in a flight unit. People’s lives are in your hands.
We transported a lot of pregnant women around. Car wrecks, a lot of car wrecks. Gunshots. Weapon mischarge. Heat stroke victims.
We had two Black Hawk helicopters collide. Seventeen dead soldiers, and we had to climb up the trees to retrieve the bodies. That stuff doesn’t leave you.
When I was a little girl growing up, most girls played with Barbies, and I liked playing with Barbies. But I liked playing with the boys in my neighborhood, too. We’d play Army. I think that’s where I fell in love with it.
I was working two full-time jobs and a part-time job in a really bad recession we had in the early ‘80s. I was trying to go to school at night, too. I just felt like I was wrecking my brain and my body. I was working for minimum wage, and decided that I had had enough.
So I decided that I wanted to go to school, and went to a bank to look into getting a student loan. The banker said, “Well, honey, you can just go get pregnant and get on welfare.”
I said, “Well, honey, that’s a problem that would last for the rest of my life, wouldn’t it? I don’t want to bring a child into this world just so I can go to school.” He said, "Well, you could go into the military." So I said, “You know what? You’re right. I can go into the military.” So I did.
Back then, even though women weren’t allowed in combat, we still trained for it. Actually, as a female, we weren’t assigned to an infantry unit, but I spent a lot of time with the infantry, which was kind of unusual being the only woman with like 400 men around you.
I loved men who didn’t think I belonged in the Army ...
I earned the respect. It’s not given to you. There are still a lot of issues, something I really don’t like to talk about, but the military still is attributed with sexual harassment. Most women, at least when I was in, experienced that.
The overwhelming thing I learned was compassion. I didn’t have a lot of that going in. You learn from all kinds of people, because we truly are one great big melting pot when you’re living in the barracks. You realize that things aren’t so bad when you think you’ve got it bad.
I learned respect, and learned what I had as a citizen when I lost those rights.
Persistence is another thing. No matter how bad things get, you get yourself in that mindset. I’m going to keep on plowing through, no matter how tired I am or how badly my body hates me.
I loved it, and sometimes hated it.
-- Interviewed by Dakota Wright
- Branch/Rank Army, E-6 sergeant
- Locations/Time Serviced: Iraq, Kuwait, active duty (2004-2005); Army Reserve (2002-present)
- Residence: Northside
- Occupation: Unit administrator, military reservist
At 35 years of age I really didn’t have a career. I hadn’t finished college, and I was moving back to Ohio to help my mother with my father, who was ill.
I had thought about the military several times over my life: at 18, then at 28 and at 35.
I was a little concerned. I didn’t have a career, and my education was incomplete. I thought, I’m going to go into the military. Maybe it will just help me in different ways.
So at 35 I headed off to basic training.
My military experience has kept me off the streets. I've wanted to do well with the military and be challenged by it.
I still am glad that I've done it. I still enjoy the camaraderie I find with soldiers of different ages and different genders. I’m enlisted. There are officers, and so I like the interaction of that, too. That is part of my personality. I want adventure. I want different experiences.
I like being kind of a trailblazer, if that’s the right word.
You know, “Hey I did it, I went into the military. I went in at 35, too, and I survived it.”
And here I am 47 and still in the military 12 and a half years later.
-- Interviewed by Hunter Moore
- Branch/Rank: Ohio Air National Guard, major
- Location/Time Served: three deployments in Qatar, active duty (2005-2006); Balad Air Base, Iraq, active duty (2008-2009)
- Residence: California
- Occupation: Air battle manager
I come from a military family. My dad was in the Navy, my grandfather was in the Air Force, my other grandfather was in the Army, and my grandmother was a WAC (Women’s Army Corp.). So growing up, and moving around with my dad, joining the military just seemed like the natural thing to do.
I ended up doing four years of Air Force ROTC in college at Ohio State. Then after college, my first duty station was in Panama City, Fla., at Tyndall Air Force Base.
I actually chose my job because it looked cool – I was going to fly on an airplane. After training, I was asked to be an instructor and teach people coming in. So I spent three and a half years at Tyndall. Then I was stationed at Warner Robbins Air Force Base in Warner Robbins, Ga., with the JSTARS, which is the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System. I became an air battle manager. I was basically an air traffic controller in the air. We put bombs on target, we directed planes to troops and contact, and I talked to military aircraft for air support.
I did three deployments with JSTARS, returned to Ohio and ended up with a full-time job here at the 123rd in Blue Ash as an air control squadron. I do the same thing I did in deployment, except for now instead of being in the air I’m on the ground.
My last deployment was in 2009 in Afghanistan. It was the hardest, most intense, but also the most rewarding. We were responsible for the overall air space and I was the head operator in charge of a crew of 22.
It was challenging trying to remain calm when guys would call and tell me they were getting shot at and needed air cover, like right now. We were at Balad Air Force Base, north of Baghdad, and being in Iraq was really different because we were getting shelled at every night.
I’m married military now, and we’ve both experienced some PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I definitely experienced some of it during that 2009 deployment. When you’re in charge, you can’t show any weakness, but I would go home iand break down.
Plus when you come back home, it’s hard to adjust back to society.
Having some PTSD .. has ade me want to go the route of the more holistic approach with yoga, which the VA has started to take on now. It’s more of the breathing and relaxation part of yoga, which helps people with PTSD get out of their own mind. I finished at Cincinnati State and World Peace Yoga in Clifton in April with my certification in yoga. I just felt like that was my way to give back. Soon I will also have a certification in Mindful Yoga for Veterans.
My only struggles in the military were being in a male-dominated career field where I needed to prove myself. You almost have to become a guy to be a part of their culture. It’s tough, and I feel like you lose yourself in the process.
Overall though, I’ve had a positive experience. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and I would absolutely do it all over again. I wouldn’t change it at all.
-- Interviewed by Amanda Franken