This month, we salute three women veterans from The Villages who proudly served in the U.S. military.
Women have a long but underappreciated history of military service.
Their roles have evolved considerably. There was a time when women in the military were primarily cooks and nurses. Today, they patrol streets with machine guns, dispose of explosives, and drive trucks down bomb-ridden roads.
They have a larger presence in the military than ever before. In fact, women will comprise nearly 11 percent of the total veteran population by 2020, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Style recently sat down with three female veterans from The Villages and learned about their stories from years of military service.
Bedside on the battlefield
As a military doctor, Joan Sullivan saw it all.
Bodies from the fiery TWA Flight 800 crash. The hellish storm of smoke, shattered glass, and ashes at ground zero in New York City on 9/11. Bloodied U.S. soldiers who took enemy fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During her career with the Army Reserves and the New York Army National Guard, Joan provided medical expertise at battlefields and disaster zones across the globe.
“I feel lucky that I was able to use my God-given talent to make a difference,” she says.
Joan joined the U.S. Army Reserve in May 1977 and later completed medical school at the University of Tennessee. In 1991, she finished a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Cincinnati, and three years later enlisted in the New York Army National Guard.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki activated her unit to assist in the 1996 crash of Flight 800, which exploded shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing all 230 passengers and crew members. Joan served as task force surgeon.
“I was in charge of all military medical assets at the site,” she says. “The bodies were hard to identify because they were bloated from being in the water so long. There wasn’t enough room to put all the bodies in morgues, so a company let us put them in a refrigerator truck. I remember seeing men riding dune buggies through the sand and picking up body parts.”
Five years later, she returned to New York City and served in the same capacity following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She and her unit stayed at an armory on 5th Avenue, sleeping on military cots and covering themselves with old Army blankets.
“What struck me about being at ground zero most was the smell,” she recalls. “You had organic waste, construction waste, JP-8 jet fuel, and burning flesh. It was tough. You didn’t work until 5pm or 6pm. You worked just until.”
Joan faced an equally challenging workload after being deployed to Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2007. The demands of treating the many wounded in an environment of armed conflict puts added pressure on physicians and surgeons. Danger is everywhere.
“In Iraq, an enemy soldier we named Lunchtime Larry would fire mortars at our facility every day,” she says. “And whenever you traveled in either country, there were always gun trucks to accompany you. You couldn’t just get in a vehicle and go somewhere.”
A proud veteran, Joan is a member of American Legion Post 347, the Tri-County Women’s Veterans Association, and Disabled American Veterans Chapter 150.
A few good women
The United States Marine Corps has a famous slogan: “The Few, The Proud.”
Carole Bruce was certainly one of the few. When she enlisted in 1975, there were fewer than 2,000 active-duty female service members in the Marines. However, joining the most physically demanding branch of the U.S. military was a challenge the Pennsylvania native openly embraced.
“I wanted warmer weather and the ability to travel,” says Carole, who was taking business courses at the University of Pittsburgh when she enlisted. “I visited recruiters from all military branches and felt the Marine Corps suited me the best. It is an elite branch, and I wanted to do something challenging.”
She got her wish while transforming from civilian to Marine at the USMC’s 13-week boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. She remembers the countless hours of marching, traversing obstacle courses, and crawling over cargo nets. And she entered the dreaded gas chamber that makes even Marines cry.
“Your face is burning, your eyes are watering, and your nose is running,” she says. “At the end, you have to take your gas mask off and file out calmly.”
She discovered that shutting up and listening was the best way to survive the Marine Corps boot camp, famously depicted in the 1987 movie “Full Metal Jacket.”
“Do what you’re told to do, and everything falls into place,” she says. “I really got buffed in three months from all the running and exercising.”
Graduating boot camp marked the beginning of a 24-year military career. Carole spent five years as a court reporter before joining the officer ranks through the warrant officer program. As a chief warrant officer, she worked with various Marine units, handling a variety of administrative and legal duties.
“That was a very exciting job because each unit has an entirely different mission,” she says. “I moved 13 times in 24 years and lived in beautiful places such as Puerto Rico, San Diego, Hawaii, and Okinawa, Japan.”
Although she retired in 1999 as chief warrant officer 4, she still wears the title of Marine with great pride. In fact, she gathers with other Marines each year to celebrate the Marine Corps’ birthday on Nov. 10.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” says Carole, who moved to The Villages in 2016. “We’re a small band of brothers…and sisters.”
Midlife call of duty
It’s a question military recruiters hear all the time.
“How old is too old to join?”
In the 1980s, the answer was 35. Kathi Cahall barely beat the clock.
Kathi was 34 when she joined the U.S. Navy in 1987. At the time, she was enrolled in a college psychology course that focused on death.
“I realized then that when I die, I want my family to say I had a great life,” she says. “Joining the military was something I always thought about doing. I was only one month away from turning 35 so I decided to join.”
Kathi spent the first 13 years of her career in the Navy Reserve before enlisting as an active-duty service member in 2000. She fondly remembers serving on the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee for the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
“The committee starts preparing one year in advance,” she says. “We were in charge of security, staging, VIP escorts, and transporting food. I was truly amazed by all the detail that goes into it.”
During her career, Kathi had unique opportunities to work for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, sail aboard the USS Constitution, and travel to faraway places such as Spain and Italy. But one of the more memorable assignments involved a three-week stay at the Arctic Circle. She was part of a team that installed sonobuoy software on planes to detect underwater sounds and locate Russian submarines.
“I went in April, and there was white permafrost, or frozen soil,” she recalls. “There were snowstorms, and I saw beautiful white foxes. The barracks that I stayed in had big, thick doors like you’d see in a meat locker.”
For Kathi, there were difficult moments as well. When serving on the chief of naval operations staff, she looked out her office window and saw the Pentagon ablaze in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It was horrifying. There was no Internet or cellphone service. Communications were wrecked. The Navy Yard was closed, and streets were blocked off. You couldn’t go anywhere,” she says. “In the weeks following the attacks, I remember seeing surface-to-air missiles on top of parking garages.”
Kathi retired in 2009, earning the Joint Service Achievement Medal and the Naval Enlisted Reserve Association’s 1776 award. Her only regret is not joining the U.S. Navy out of high school.
“I could’ve traveled and done more,” she says. “I think everybody should be required to join the military for at least two years after high school. It teaches you discipline, responsibility, and respect.”