I wanted to write something on Veterans Day, but my schedule got full that day and the weekend that followed because of miscellaneous commitments (such as a conference presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Denver). Then, just as I began to feel bad for missing the occasion, I realized I had an event on the horizon that was worth mentioning.
Veterans Day has taken on new significance for me in the past few years of dissertating. The only servicemembers in my family all died many years ago, so I never had an understanding of the role their military service played in their lives. Now, though, my research has connected me with so many women who have shared their stories and experiences in the military. For me, Veterans Day is about remembering and honoring them in particular.
This year, I attended the 25th annual Tribute to Women Veterans here in St. Louis. Originally an event put on by the VA, the local American Legion Post 404 (comprised of women veterans only) has managed the tribute for many years now. Last year, that event brought my attention to Post 404, although I didn’t attend because I wasn’t sure civilians could come and I never heard back from the individual I’d contacted about it. After spending six months working on an exhibit with St. Louis Soldiers Memorial, however, combined with the contacts and interviews with Post 404 members this past year, this year it seemed like there was no question: they said they would be happy to have me come.
What an event. I had no clue what to expect, aside from the obvious of food and a speaker from the Coast Guard. I was impressed from start to finish, though: more than 200 people attended the Tribute this year, and I met a number of wonderful people who have offered to speak with me further.
The Tribute to Women Veterans honors and celebrates the women who have chosen to serve their country in the military. Following the presentation of the flags, the National Anthem, and the Pledge of Allegiance, the past Post 404 Commander read the names of the American women who died in Iraq over the past year and the St. Louis Women’s Chorale sang “In Flanders Field.” It was an incredibly moving experience.
I sat next to a wonderful woman who served from 1951 to 1953, and we have plans to connect in the near future so I can speak with her further. I met a nurse who traveled with Bob Hope during the Vietnam War and arrived in Vietnam just before the Tet Offensive. I talked to a woman who enlisted in the 1970s and served for two years, and chatted with the daughter of a World War II vet who gave me her mother’s number. The conductor of the St. Louis Chorale left me her card, noting that she was an early participant in the Air Force Band.
In my research, I’ve been particularly drawn to images related to women in military service. I have a poster from the Vietnam Women’s Memorial that shows a set of dog tags with the caption “Not all women wore love beads in the sixties,” and the image above (from the St. Louis Soldiers Memorial website, in this instance) is another new favorite: the combat boot, the high heel, the pearls, and the dog tags. That image so neatly encapsulates the contradictions to which servicewomen have long been subject – the need to be feminine, yet to balance that femininity within the context of the male-dominated, often heavily masculinized institution that is the military.
They’re amazing women, these women who chose to serve. I feel privileged to have come to know so many. Today and always, my hat is off to them.