President Woodrow Wilson declared Veterans Day a national holiday in November 1919. The 11th of November signified the armistice between the Germans and Allied nations that went into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Today, we celebrate Veterans Day to honor the men and women who sacrificed themselves to defend their country.
This Veterans Day, we celebrate the lives and legacies of the groundbreaking women of the U.S. military’s 245-year history.
Born in Elmira, New York, in 1956, Eileen graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics. She was one of four women admitted to the Air Force Undergrad Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and in 1979, she became the Air Force’s first female flight instructor. In 1990, Eileen was selected as an astronaut; five years later, she became the first woman pilot of a U.S. space shuttle. In 1999, Eileen took Columbia into Earth orbit to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory, making her the first woman to command a shuttle mission.
Admiral Michelle Howard graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 and made waves throughout military history ever since. She became the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy in March 1999 when she took command of the USS Rushmore. Michelle was the first African American woman to achieve a two- and three-star rank. In 2014, she was appointed to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the second-highest-ranking officer in the Navy. Over the course of her three decades of service, she became the highest-ranking woman in U.S. Armed Forces history.
Dr. Mary E. Walker was the only female in her graduating class at Syracuse Medical College in 1855. She traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1861 to apply for an appointment as an Army surgeon, much to the shock of the medical department. Denied her request, she continued to volunteer on the battlefields nonetheless. Mary was captured by the Confederates in 1864 and arrested for being a spy. She was in prison for over four months, during which she suffered abuse due to her “unladylike” occupation and attire. Mary E. Walker is the sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor, which she wore every day until the day she died.
Charity Adams Earley graduated at the top of her class from Wilburforce University in Ohio, one of the best African American higher educational institutions at the time. She applied for the Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and completed her training in Fort Des Moines. After graduating, she stayed at the fort to work in various leadership positions. In September 1943, Charity was promoted to major, making her the highest-ranking female officer at the training center. She became the first African American woman to lead an army unit on a tour of duty overseas during WWII. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was the first African American WAC unit to go overseas, and they completed their six-month-long mission in just three months.
Marcella Hayes was born in 1956 in Mexico, Missouri. At only 23 years old, she became the first African American woman in the U.S. military to earn her aviator wings after completing helicopter flight training at the U.S. Army Aviation Center in Fort Rucker, Alabama. Marcella was assigned to the 394th Transportation Battalion in Germany, where she was the first African American soldier and first woman leader of that unit. She retired after three decades of service in 2000 as a Lieutenant Colonel and Corps Support Command Inspector.
Ann E. Dunwoody originally planned on a career in physical education, but after joining the army during her senior year at the State University of New York, she grew to love army life so much that she stayed after her first commission. Ann was a prominent leader, becoming the first female battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division in 1992 and the first female general in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2000. In 2008, she was sworn in as the head of the U.S. Army Materiel Command in her birthplace of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. That same day, she was promoted to four-star general, making her the first female four-star general in U.S. Army history.
Olivia Chavez-Carroll is the only woman out of 14 veterans in her family to have served in the U.S. military. She became the first Latinx aviator to fly for South Carolina and was deployed to Afghanistan, where she flew Chinook heavy-life helicopter missions. Olivia is currently active on the public speaking and veteran outreach circuit, working to help veterans in their transition back to civilian life and raise awareness on the significant contributions of Latinx soldiers to the U.S. military.
After graduating with her doctorate in mathematics from Yale University in 1934, Grace attempted to join the Naval Reserve. She was denied the request due to her age and height-to-weight ratio, but Grace persisted and was eventually sworn into the reserve in 1943. After graduating at the top of her class from her training, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance’s Computation Project at Harvard University. She worked on Mark I, the first large-scale automatic calculator (and the great-great-grandfather of all computers everywhere). Her computer skills became an invaluable asset to the U.S. military. At the time of her retirement in 1986, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy for a total serving time of 79 years, 8 months, and 5 days.