By Amanda Huffman
Contributing Writer

Since combat exclusion was lifted in 2015, there has been more discussion about women breaking barriers in the military. But the truth is women have been breaking barriers in the military since the Revolutionary War, a war in which some women were so committed to being part of the effort to gain our nation’s freedom they dressed up in men’s clothing alongside the militias to fight for it. 

That’s just part of the amazing history and story of military women. Even as someone who already knows a lot about their roles and their history, I uncovered new secrets about some of the amazing women who have served in the military through the years. 

Did you know only one woman has earned the medal of honor? That was all the way back in 1865? Her name was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, and she was unable to join the Army as a soldier during the Civil War because she was a woman. Yet she also refused to be a nurse because of her advanced medical qualifications. Instead, she volunteered for the Union Army, serving in field hospitals as a War Department surgeon. At one point, Dr. Walker was detained as a Prisoner of War for four months when she was captured by the Confederacy. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865 by President Andrew Johnson, typically reserved for soldiers, even though she had never been a commissioned officer in military service. 

More than 5,000 nurses served during the Vietnam War. Their service started when three American women arrived in Saigon to teach medical procedures to South Vietnamese nurses. Eight of those 5,000 women died in Vietnam while serving. Diane Carlson served as a nurse in Vietnam and later spearheaded the charge to get women recognized at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC by founding the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Carlson shared her story in Healing Wounds, A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10-Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C.

The first women to fly for the U.S. Military did so during World War II. They were never given the military status they were promised and were almost lost to history until they fought for Veterans’ rights in the 1970s. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) helped free up male pilots to fight overseas. They went through military training and worked as trainer pilots who tested and ferried aircraft, and trained other pilots. In total, 38 women lost their lives while serving with the WASPs. 

The first women to serve as pilots in the U.S. Military were in the Navy, not the Air Force. They were a class of six women led by Captain Rosemary Mariner. Due to 1948’s Women’s Armed Services Integration Act that allowed women to serve in the military but not to “be assigned to duty in aircraft while such aircraft are engaged in combat missions…” they could not participate fully alongside their male counterparts. Wings of Gold by Beverly Weintraub follows the story of these six remarkable women and the challenges they faced while breaking barriers for the women who followed in their footsteps.

These four female pilots leaving their ship at the four engine school at Lockbourne are members of a group of WASPS who have been trained to ferry the B 17 Flying Fortresses US Air Force photo

In 1991, Congress removed the law banning women from flying warplanes in combat, and Col. (ret.) Martha McSally became the first female pilot in combat in the U.S. Air Force. Then in 1993, Maj Gen Jeannie Leavitt became the first female fighter pilot.

Combat exclusion for women was lifted in 2015, but despite it being in place during the majority of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2021) and all of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011), women still served in roles that led to them being in combat. For instance, when I was deployed in 2010, I served in Afghanistan, and while I couldn’t serve in the Infantry unit I was attached to, I went on the same missions and even was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal for the work I did and the combat I saw. Women also served on Cultural Support Teams and Female Engagement Teams that were created to allow women to support combat units they could not serve in. Because of their proven brave sacrifice, women can now serve in every aspect of the U.S. military. 

With the opening of combat roles to them, women continue to break barriers.. The first women graduates of Army Ranger School were in the class of 2015. Major Kristen Griest was one of them and she also became the first woman to serve an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army. Maj Shaye Haver also graduated Army Ranger School with Kristen and joined the infantry and the 82nd Airborne. Since their graduation, more than 100 women have completed Army Ranger School.

Women continued to break barriers in late 2023, when Sgt. Maciel Hay became one of the first women to graduate sniper school, and then went on to become the U.S. Army’s first active-duty female sniper. 

The future is bright for women in the military. Those who serve today continue to break barriers and make the way for the next generation to follow them in combat and leadership roles.

Learn about AAFMAA’s partnership with the Military Women’s Memorial. And watch a discussion between Sarah Bumgardner, AAFMAA Director of Partnerships and Engagement, and Phyllis Wilson, President of the Military Women’s Memorial. 

Amanda is a military veteran who served in the Air Force for six years as a Civil Engineer who served on a combat deployment with the Army in Afghanistan. She traded in her combat boots for a diaper bag to stay home with her two boys and follow her husband’s military career in the Space Force. Amanda is the host of the Women of the Military podcast. There she shares the stories of women who have served or are serving in the military. The podcast has over 200 episodes and over 100K downloads. Amanda is also an author and has published two books. Her first book, Women of the Military tells the stories of 28 military women who served in the military. Her second book, A Girl’s Guide to Military Serviceis the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Winner for Teen Non Fiction. It is a guide for high school girls considering military service to help them build a strong foundation for their future career. She also works as a freelance writer and has been featured in a number of military publications including The War, Military Families Magazine, Clearance Jobs, Military Spouse Magazine, and more. 

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