News: From WAC to Soldier: Women tell their journey through the Army
Story by Spc. Charlotte Fitzgerald
FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. – Time and time again, women have proven that they too are willing to step up to the plate and serve our nation. In today’s world, when you picture a soldier, the image of either a man or a woman in uniform may come to mind. Forty years ago, that picture might not have been as diverse, yet two female soldiers recount their experiences and how they overcame and helped diversify the Army into today’s roles.
“I was the first in a lot of things, but I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I just happened to be in that spot at that time in history and didn’t know it,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Grace Davidson, a Harrisburg, Ark., native, who joined the Army in April 1975.
With the Vietnam War wrapping up and settling down at that time, the role for women in the Army started evolving from an all woman- Women’s Army Corps to an integrated force where men and women would begin working and training hand-in-hand.
“I wasn’t going through school because I wanted an education,” said Sgt. 1st Class Verdean Miller, an Albuquerque, N. M. native, and assistant non-commissioned officer-in-charge for S-1 with the 90th Sustainment Brigade, based out of North Little Rock, Ark. “I was still at home and out of high school and had to do something so my parents said you need to go to college; but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to major in, in life.”
Miller, who joined two months after Davidson in June of ‘75, said she was sitting in class at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College at Pine Bluff, now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, one very hot summer day when she decided that after class, she would talk to a recruiter and take the placement test to join the military. Although she gave all the branches an initial thought, Miller had participated in Army ROTC at the university and ultimately chose and left for Army basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala. in January 1976. Miller said she knew then there was no doubt in her mind she would serve for 20 years.
On the other hand, Davidson said she joined the Army because she wanted to further her high school education and receive the Vietnam-Era GI Bill. She signed up for the WAC when she was 17 and left for basic after turning 18. Davidson went to basic training at Fort Jackson, S. C., where she would also eventually out-process from active duty into the Individual Ready Reserve.
“I initially signed up for four years. Back then, women didn’t have to do the eight year commitment like they do now,” said Davidson, currently an information systems technician with the 90th SB. “I got to four years, but I extended a year so I was in five years on active duty.”
Both Davidson and Miller stated their basic trainings were completely separated from the males; not like the integrated basic training today, where men and women train together yet live in separate quarters.
“They were slowly integrating us, into the regular Army and when the WAC went away, it just kind of disappeared, faded away. You almost didn’t know it went away,” Davidson said. “They had just started teaching women to fire an M-16 and that was interesting. I had never fired a rifle before and I fired expert. Probably because I didn’t know any different and did exactly what they told me to do.”
Miller said, “I began to meet other young ladies coming from all walks of life. It was a very interesting experience. Because coming up I really didn’t deal with other races of people before because the neighborhood I lived in was all black, the university I went to was all black, so every now and then I would come in contact but not like I did when I first came into the Army.”
After basic training, Davidson went to Ft. Devens, Mass., for school to be an electronic warfare/intercept systems repairman, while Miller went to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., to become personnel management.
Davidson, who only spent five years on active duty, said while she was out-processing at Fort Jackson, a recruiter recommended she join the IRR so she could re-enlist later on if she wanted to. Davidson met her husband during her five years and they had two small sons at the time she was getting off of active duty.
“When I went to Germany, I was the first woman in my unit,” said Davidson, who served in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, during her active-duty status. “They had never had a woman in that unit before. My platoon sergeant didn’t like that idea very much. I was in the 8th Infantry Division. We were in the field all the time. It wasn’t easy but I had decided I was going to pull my weight and I told them if I can’t pull my weight, get rid of me and I meant it.”
Davidson, who has three grown sons who have served overseas as well, even shared the fact that she hid her first pregnancy for as long as possible simply because she did not want to let down her team members and company, and would continue to do as much as she could until they would not let her go to the field anymore.
“At that time, if you were a female with a family and your husband was also a Soldier; if you got out, that was it. They wouldn’t take you back if you had a family,” she said. “So (joining the IRR), was the best thing I ever did because I wouldn’t have been able to come back.”
After being in the IRR a little over a year, and after her third son was born, Davidson said she missed the Army and decided to join the Army Reserve as a “radio-teletype” or “RATT-Rig operator,” which doesn’t exist anymore she said. Davidson would then receive the rank of sergeant which was also referred to as a “buck sergeant.”
“There was no accession for a ‘RATT- Rig’ operator in my unit, so I became an ammunition inspector, 55 x-ray. Then, that’s how I became a warrant officer. I did that for several years and we had a couple of warrant officer vacancies in our unit and I applied for warrant officer and I got my bar,” she said.
Miller, on the other hand, remained on active duty for a total of 12 years and in that time became both a drill sergeant and an airborne instructor for the Army. She completed her term of active duty status after almost twelve and a half years of service, when her parents became severely ill. She would then come back to join the Reserve after a ten year break in service, in 1998, after her sister moved back home and reassured her she could finish her 20 years.
“When I joined the Reserve, they needed drill sergeants again,” said Miller. “As a Reservist, I continued my drill sergeant status at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.”
Miller loosely stated that as a drill sergeant, she did not always agree with the male/female integrated training idea and believed men should train men while women trained women during basic training, and the two genders could come together during Advanced Individual Training.
“I have always talked to the female platoons and said be proud of who you are. You have worked hard to get where you need to go,” Miller said of her time as a drill sergeant. “You don’t have to lower your standards to get to where you need to go. You should work hard and study hard to excel in life.”
Both women would continue their Reserve careers, eventually serving together in Balad, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom during 2009 to 2010 with the 90th SB. They have continued to work with each other at the 90th since.
“I think me joining the military… was one of the best things I ever did in my life,” said Miller. “Staying in was even better because now I’m looking at 26-27 years (of military service) and I am getting close to retirement and I just don’t see how a person can go wrong.”
“It is just amazing the stuff that I’ve learned,” said Davidson when speaking on the benefits of her almost 40 years in service. “People think I am so smart, but it is my Soldiers who are smarter and they make me look smart. The training I’ve gotten has been great and my retirement is going to be really good.”
Overall, neither woman views them self as a person of history; instead, they will continue to be mentors to the new generations of Soldiers coming into the Army. Both Davidson and Miller are not exactly sure when they will retire, but they hope to leave a positive influence behind for the younger troops.
“Being in the military is like anything else,” Miller said. “Like a job, you have to discipline yourself and in order to advance, you have to seek education, you have to seek knowledge, you have to gain the way of doing things different and make it work for you.”
“Everyone is important, even if you don’t have a lot of ‘hero badges,’” said Davidson. “I think that’s important for people to remember… That’s what I have done my whole career mostly, is just let people be able to communicate, and that’s an important thing. I might not have a chest full of ribbons and badges, but I feel like I have done my part.”